There is a 1,500-year-old European tradition of seven musical antiphons that consummate the Advent movement as it crescendos to the silent wonder of Christmas night. Probably best known in the Anglosphere today for their adaptation as the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” the “O Antiphons” form a musical movement that is as steady and constant as the generations that have piled up unfailingly like fresh snow since that musical exclamation was first conceived. Just like the snow, the antiphons return annually, always fresh.
Christmas is a declaration of wonder at the perpetual newness of God’s gift. This wonder, once reencountered, can overflow silently into profound depths of all European life. In encountering the miracle of the Incarnation, life regains its freshness, its innocence, and its noblest ideals. This experience enables us to see the world clearly, recognizing that all of creation is a pure gift, a sacrament of God’s kind munificence, crowned by the very gift of the Creator himself as a babe in a manger; the gift of Love Divine!
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
“O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
This text is drawn from the Matins (an early morning prayer) of Christmas in the Roman Breviary. In it is captured the self-abasement of the Divine Word, Christ, in his choice to take on the astonishing vulnerability of a newly born infant, in a squalid cattle shed, in the most unexpected town of Bethlehem (Hebrew for “House of Bread”). Like the Eucharist host towards which all proper adoration is orientated, this little child is born as a precious secret, hidden within a city that bears a mysterious premonition of the later acclamation of the same Messiah as the “Bread of Life.” It is in this magnificent folly of Divine self-gift that all Europe’s spiritual treasures and values find their overflowing source and energy of purpose. It is towards that cosmic salvific miracle in the midst of a bleak winter that we turn our lives in the weeks that precede Christmas. In the gradual pace towards the hidden crib, we can join our European forebears in meditating and crying out the O Antiphons from the depths of our hearts and with unfailing hope.
The silent splendour of Advent’s promise
The O Antiphons begin with the mystical and silent splendour of the spiritual wisdom and order of the Divine Word, Christ. Worshippers then ask that this wisdom and order might outpour as radical gift into all human temporal affairs. This creates a new society whose orientation is wholly fulfilled in a horizon within which the God who “is Love” (1 John 4:16) stands revealed in every human face that now bares resemblance to His. It is in the recognition of this new horizon of Love, disclosed by the Christ-child, that Christendom, the original European society, first expressed its most expansive goals. The very freedom of Europe’s life-giving social dynamics were born of an action of welcoming a silent and profound adoration of the Divine Mystery. This is a mystery in which human freedom and Divine freedom elide and are lost in the embrace of Love. Love disclosed and revealed is Europe’s firmest foundation; an infinite Love that is pure is at the heart of Europe’s greatest accomplishments. This loving Wisdom can still teach us prudence towards any goals that are merely temporal. We must listen to this wisdom as the true Europe strives for a transcendent horizon ordered towards the true, the good, and the beautiful. We must strive for that which gives salvific purpose to everyday life and existence:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
“O Wisdom, Who didst come out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come and teach us the way of prudence.”
A new rule of life
The zeal with which Moses received the gift of the Ten Commandments still runs deep in the veins of Europe’s sense of Justice. Without the backdrop of these laws, European culture would stand bereft of the sense of Divine Mercy that is beyond utilitarian and materialistic revolutions. Lest we forget this 5,000-year-old pattern of life, the next O Antiphon reminds us to cultivate hearts attuned to God’s laws, to encourage supplication to the Lord (“Adonai” in Hebrew). The supplication underpins the fabric of our society’s moral lifeblood:
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
“O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, Who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and didst give unto him the Law on Sinai: come and with an outstretched arm redeem us.”
This new life is begun in meeting the Lord who comes first to us. It enables Europe’s true identity as a community who, though distinguished in myriad nations, can still stand united under a celestial ‘ensign’ of honour to the Deliverer of the peoples. Paradoxically, no temporal power can ever stand higher than the One who came in total abasement. For more than a millennium, power in Europe has been tempered by the claim that true strength is inseparable from our common identity as human beings in need of divine grace:
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
“O Root of Jesse, Who dost stand for an ensign of the people, before Whom kings shall keep silence, and unto Whom the Gentiles shall make their supplication: come to deliver us, and tarry not.”
The dawning of cascading light
It is impossible for the spiritually attuned not to see the life-giving nature of the Advent season hidden throughout Europe’s frost-bitten streets. Even as winter lies bare and forlorn all around us, there is a jubilant theme breaking upon all our homes. In the joy of lit trees, laden markets, presents, friends, songs, and the symphony of union, there is a flavour of heaven even now amidst the suffering of life. Despite the pain, distress, and fatigue experienced by all of us as we approach the time of festivities, there rings still an invitation into joy, a joy unspeakable.
In your hands today a “child is born” (Isaiah 9:6) who needs you to hold him, to care for him, to keep him safe. This is the key of hope that could never have been merited. It opens the possibility of the gentle strength that is at the heart of all true European dignity, culture, and civilisation. Indeed, the Christ child is the measure against which all Europe’s ethical and spiritual activity is measured and the fulfilment in which it finds its destiny. The key is the love of God, the God who is so unexpectedly with us as a vulnerable newborn. This very love in all the radical strength of its gentleness, reorientates all societal relationships to be newly enacted in loving reciprocity. This is the very dynamism that brings forth the joy of the Christmas Spirit!
O Clavis David, O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
“O Key of David … O Dawn of the East, Brightness of the Light Eternal and Sun of Justice, come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
A King from on high
Earthly Christian monarchy (upon which Europe’s story has been grafted inexorably) still retains an echo in its memory of the profound claim that each human person is made in God’s image and possesses great dignity. Individual sovereignty, which is a miracle of European civilisation, is at its heart causally inexorable from the notion and praxis of baptismal grace, which has been made possible by the salvific entrance of the newborn Messiah into the drama of human existence. Now human life has been bequeathed the unimaginable gift of God-with-us. The basis of this baptism is that historically there has been a one singular and unrepeatable Hypostatic Union, an Incarnation of the Divine and the human in one person. It is the reality of Jesus’ Incarnation that is at the heart of Christmas, which still gives an abiding principle and strength to the notion of the sanctity of every human life.
There is no greater desire than that for the source of all Desire. This source is an infinite and perfect Divine Love. The perfect Love is expressed in this world in the gaze of the tiny face of Jesus the Christ, Yeshuah Ha’Meschiah, son of Miriam and Josef. Thus, Christ Himself fulfils the longing for grace all men experience. To see the Christ child is to see Love made visible.
This King is magnificent in his hiddenness, poverty, and humility; earthly sovereignty must come forth and bow its head in a small cattle shed. The one who formed human life from dust now lies in the murky dust of a cattle manger. He can be found even today; this is the invitation of Christmas, which, if heeded, allows us to step into the very splendour of grace. To come to this newborn child and find offered to us in His gaze an unimaginable hope kindles an overflowing adoration, an adoration that is the light of Europe.
He is there in the stable. Come and see Him. Careful! Mind your head, and do not bruise it on the doorframe. He’s here. Come in quietly and see Him for yourself. For the deepest salvation of Europe is to receive and give love, this is Europe’s lifeblood, Europe’s soul, Europe’s destiny:
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
“O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of them, Thou Cornerstone that dost make both one, come and deliver man, whom Thou didst form out of the dust of the earth.”
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
“O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the Nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God.”
Approaching the little cattle shed in Bethlehem’s obscurity—as we do every Advent—we may rediscover in ourselves something of the strength of gentleness. Advent is gradual as the light of dawn pouring into a new day. The rhythm and cadence of this season is a daily movement closer and closer to that miracle in time when God comes to give us hope. There is real hope for those who approach the little manger where nervously Josef looks out to those who come through the door and Miriam nestles her beloved newborn from the piercing cold.
Are we like a shepherd this Advent, someone at the core dejected and filled with contradictions and weariness? There is, perhaps, no one who does not feel like that, no one who does not call out with the fibres of his being for Love to save them, for Love to burn and blazen his heart so that darkness can be filled with the light of hope.
Still today as Advent beckons, make your way gently now but with purpose of heart to Europe’s greatest treasure. He lies in the arms of Miriam, she who trusted in God’s heart, she will hand her little baby son to you so you may hold him to, and even hear his gentle breathing. He has not abandoned you, he is with you.
O Jesu dulcis!
O Jesu pie!
O Jesu fili Mariae
O kind and loving Jesus, son of Mary.