O come…

O come… a journey into the Advent Antiphons!

My love for the plaintive, plainsong hymn “O come, O come Immanuel” dates back to childhood (although not quite as far back as this photo of the family, with my grandmother, in about 1961!)   In part I loved it because singing it meant we were in Advent, my “favourite” season of the liturgical year.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and love this hymn, but I knew nothing about its history.

Around thirty years ago my parents gave me a copy of Delia Smith’s “A Feast for Advent” which was published in 1983 and which I used faithfully in Advent every year for many years – it seemed to be the only such book in those days!  So, as well as guiding me through the demands of Christmas cookery and baking, it is to Delia that I am thankful for her introduction to the great “O” Antiphons from which the hymn is derived.  These seven prayers of the ancient church use symbolic images of the Messiah from the Old Testament and plead poignantly for him to “come”.  My original copy of “A Feast for Advent” is falling apart, some pages have childish scribble in the margins – testament to my attempts to stick to an Advent discipline in our Caribbean days with a wriggling child on my lap wanting attention!

Marking Advent in the Caribbean was quite counter-cultural – as it is increasingly here, with shops (and even some churches) disregarding the season and rushing straight into Christmas in early December (or earlier).  This seems sad to me, not only do we lose the richness of this preparatory, penitential season, but  we also seem to become fed up with Christmas before it has even happened!  Only minutes after blogging about the light of O Oriens yesterday I went to our newly-decorated Christmas tree to switch on the lights – which fused!  Out shopping later we discovered a large garden centre where all the Christmas stock was half-price or less but none of the lights for sale were exactly what we wanted.  However, the entrance to the shop was festooned with exactly the sort of lights I had in mind… so the manager took them down and sold them to us for a fiver!  Whilst very glad on one hand, I also wanted to say, “But there are still four days before Christmas starts – and another twelve before it’s time to take the lights down!)

Briefly back to the Advent Antiphons which, in recent years, I have used in all sorts of ways – as the basis for prayers of intercession and for many Advent talks and retreats.  Researching for the first MWiB Advent retreat in 2012 I came across the series of sonnets based on the Antiphons by Malcolm Guite (already referred to more than once in this blog!) and was further enriched.

In “Seven bells to Bethlehem”, his book about the same set of prayers, the Roman Catholic writer Oliver Treanor talks of the prayers as being both a shout of desperation by the church but also a tender whisper by a heavily pregnant mother to her unborn child as she longs for her baby to arrive.  Perhaps that adds another strain of meaning each time we repeat the words, “O come…” over these next few days… Jill



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