Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-end, Luke 21:25-36
Today, we begin a new year on this Advent Sunday. The reading from Jeremiah reminds us that Emmanuel, God with us, will be born of the House of David, which was rooted of course in Bethlehem. We need to keep Bethlehem in our prayers especially at this time, as they still live with military occupation and the brutal concrete wall through the middle of the community. This week in Westminster Abbey, a major service for Christians of the Middle East will remind the world how precarious is their existence and how we, their brothers and sisters in the faith, have a duty to support them as they experience discrimination and persecution. As one Christen leader said prophetically this week – “It’s us today – it will be you tomorrow.” Then we heard the Gospel of Luke, echoing the prophecy of Jeremiah, that the experience of persecution can be regarded as normative. But listen to the response “Stand up – raise your head – because your liberation is near.” So today, I want to use what are called the Advent Antiphons to reflect on the meaning of Advent in our twenty-first century context. I believe they can help us prepare for Christmas.
The Advent Antiphons are used in the Western Churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran traditions between December 16th and Christmas Eve. They appear in our tradition, for example, in the hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel. They are intended to be used before and after the Magnificat in the daily offices of Evening Prayer or Vespers. Here they are. Each one begins with O. This is called the vocative in Latin, which means that they are prayers addressed to God.
December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God
I’m not going to go through each one in detail - if you want to do that, simply have a look at the Hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel. What I do want to do is speak about why they are useful. Each one gives us an insight into God, and builds a sense of anticipation. Those who compiled these antiphons, probably in fourth century, knew exactly what they were doing. Through the daily prayers of the Church a sense of anticipation and mounting excitement was built. You could say they are the fourth century equivalent of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which is the nearest our culture gets to the anticipation of Christmas. Also, they are clever. If you take the first letter of each Latin title, Sapentia ( Wisdom) Adonai ( Lord) Radix ( Root) Clavis ( Key) Oriens ( Dayspring) Rex ( King) and Emmanuel (God with us) and read them backwards you get the Latin acrostic ERO CRAS – Tomorrow I will be there. That’s just to prove that Liturgy, Latin, and Theology can be fun. It also connects us to Mary, the God-Bearer, Theotokos, for without her there would be no Emmanuel, no God with us, no Incarnation, no Christmas.
In the sense of mounting anticipation which the advent Antiphons give us, they encourage us to listen, wait, and to raise our heads. One of the difficulties of our own culture is a genuine difficulty with listening, especially to the deeper human resonances, such as pain, loss, violence and persecution – the things which define human existence, especially right now. Mary helps us with this. Mary at the foot of the cross knows that a sword is piercing her own heart. This is a woman who knows the depths of human pain. This is a woman who can only bear it because of her deep listening to those around her and hence to God. Those in trouble and persecution know this instinctively, as I heard for myself in a deeply moving visit to the Syrian Christians recently, where we listed to their stories of pain and loss of Syrian , many of them children. In Europe in the 1940’s a similar experience of genocide took place at Jasenovac in Croatia as you will see so movingly in the exhibition here. These are all in the heart of Mary, Pai Bearer and Mother of Consolation.
So as we prepare for Christmas, may we listen, with Mary, to the sound of the angels and be prepared to be shifted and moved by what we hear and experience. We are being led to new things. Of that we are sure. But we can be less sure about the direction unless we are prepared to do some of that deep listening to the world and its pain and to God. Being quiet, listening, and changing. This is the world turned upside down, which the birth of Emmanuel symbolises. As Christmas preparation in this Advent period, I can think of no better thing than honouring the Mother of the child and allowing her to speak to us – through her own listening, she became the Mother of God. In the birth of Emmanuel, heaven come downs to earth as the Latin reverse acrostic of the Advent Antiphons announces Ero Cras. Tomorrow I will be there. Tomorrow I am. And because I am – You are. And because you are, I am. In other words, without God, there is neither me nor you – that, of course, is pure existentialism. So as Christ is born, we are born. We are at the same time set free – “Stand up, hold your head high, because your liberation is near.” To that biblical phrase at the beginning of Advent, we add the Aramaic invocation, Marana Tha. Our Lord Come – be born in the cavern of my heart. Maranatha.