Welcome to Advent! This might seem strange to some, but Advent is my favorite season of the liturgical year. In it, we enter into the deep longing with which the Israelite people of the Old Testament pined for the promised Messiah. Many of the traditional Advent hymns that are still used today are centuries-old hymns that were composed to draw us ever more deeply into that Old Testament longing for the Savior. Of course, we already know that the anxious anticipation of Advent gives way to the peaceful joy of Christmas; Christ himself is that promised Messiah, Savior, and the perfect fulfillment of all the deepest longings of our hearts. Indeed, all of the Old testament points to Christ, who’s coming the prophets foretold multiple times.
One of these traditional Advent hymns, which we are all familiar with, is the beautiful “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It has been sung for centuries as a musical “summary” of the “O” antiphons found in the Roman Breviary (today, the Liturgy of the Hours– the daily prayer book that priests and religious orders promise to pray). Since the 8th century, for the evening prayers from December 17-23, the Breviary has provided a different antiphon each day that calls out to God with an Old Testament name for Him, for example: “O Wisdom”, “O Root of Jesse”, etc. Each of the seven titles comes from Isaiah’s prophecies concerning Christ’s coming in the Incarnation.
To think of it another way, each verse of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” uses one of the Old Testament titles for God found in the Breviary from December 17-23. So, imagine singing only one verse of the hymn per day, starting on December 17. As you sing the next verse on each successive day, the anticipation is building and building for God Himself to come down to us from heaven, hence why each verse starts with “O come, O come…”
To better appreciate the full beauty of the hymn, we need to look at the original Latin titles for God found at the beginning of each verse, in order:
Emmanuel (Hebrew- literally, “God with us”)
Rex Gentium (King of the nations)
Oriens (literally, “the East”, but often translated as “Dayspring”)
Clavis David (Key of David)
Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
Adonai (Hebrew- literally, “Lord”)
When all of the verses have been sung, we have actually said more than we might realize. With each successive verse, the first letter of each of the titles spells out the Latin phrase, “Ero Cras,” which literally means, “I will be there tomorrow.” So, as we call out, “O come, O come!” for seven verses, Jesus is already responding to us without us even realizing it. How beautifully this expresses the whole reality of the Old Testament! Throughout generations of longing for the promised Messiah, God was already preparing his people for his response- sending them/us his Only-Begotten Son, for the salvation and ultimate fulfillment of his people. (As a side note, the antiphons in the Breviary list the Old Testament titles in the opposite order of this hymn. This emphasizes two realities. Firstly, this order has a crescendo effect, starting with the Wisdom who made all of creation and culminating in Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Secondly, in this order, the phrase “Ero Cras” is spelled backward, which expresses in a more vividly clear manner the reality that we are calling out from earth and Jesus is responding back to us from heaven.) Just as we say more than we realize when we sing this hymn, so too were the people of Israel asking for more than they realized when they were asking the Lord to fulfill his promise of a Savior.
May this Advent season be one in which we are reminded of the deep love that Christ has for us, that he is all of the titles mentioned above, and is much more.
Blessings to you all as we await the joyful celebration of Christmas!