During the week leading up to Christmas, and the week following the horrible and heartbreaking crime committed in Newtown, Connecticut, I wrote a series of short meditations on the O Antiphons for Fatherhood Etc. I’ve edited these original posts and combined them here into a set that could be said either privately or publicly, perhaps in alternation with sung verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, as a short liturgy for the last week of Advent and as a memorial for the children and adults who died that day and a litany for those who mourn them:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; (Isaiah 11:1-4b)
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
The O Antiphons are a series of seven short prayers that are traditionally chanted together with the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to December 23rd. These prayers take on a new and unexpected poignancy when juxtaposed with an unspeakable tragedy.
Advent is supposed to be a time of joyful anticipation, with candles lit on successive Sundays, decorations up, lists compiled, and presents accumulating under the tree. Instead, our nation spent the last full week before Christmas in mourning and in shock.
In the midst of a cacophony of voices, each claiming to have the answer to all our problems, we need wisdom more than ever. The kind of wisdom not found in easy answers, trite platitudes, or cheap political slogans. We need the wisdom that comes only through serious thought, reflection, and prayer.
O Wisdom, come and teach us.
Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:5-6)
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
When I read this prayer, I think about all the times I reach over to my daughter and take her hand as we cross a street or a parking lot. I do it instinctively, and she usually reaches out to me instinctively as well. My outstretched arm gives her a sense of safety and security.
We all need that sense of safety and security, and whenever an unspeakable tragedy strikes we lose it. We need that outstretched arm, and when it’s so noticeably absent we ask “why?”
It’s one of those things we don’t think about until it’s missing, and don’t pray for until we miss it.
O Adonai, come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious . . . He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:10, 13)
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Who are our kings?
It’s not our politicians. They simply represent our wishes. They write our laws, but they do not rule over us. Our rulers are violence and greed. Together, they feed our multibillion dollar defense industry, our multibillion dollar entertainment industry, our multibillion dollar gun industry, and our multibillion dollar prison industry.
And it’s only when a horrible tragedy befalls us, when too many innocent children die at one time to ignore, that we stop and pay attention.
But it never lasts. Our “kings” won’t shut their mouths for long. They never have.
O Root of Jesse, deliver us . . . from us.
And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isaiah 22:22)
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
My daughter will turn seven in January. She is the same age as the kids that were killed in Newtown, Connecticut. I want to protect her and every child like her. I want to lock every door between them and any one who might possibly hurt them.
But I can’t do that.
I can take precautions: I can be sure her school is as secure as it can possibly be, and I can keep her in my sight the rest of the time. But there is no lock in this world that only I can open and shut.
There is no way to protect every child all the time, and that both worries me and breaks my heart.
O Key of David, lead us out of darkness and the shadow of death.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
O Rising Sun, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The sun rose on December 21st, just like it does every day. The world didn’t come to an end, but for twenty-six families in Connecticut, the world as they knew it ended a week earlier.
And yet the sun still rises each morning. I’ve read that the only way to live through profound, life shattering grief is to get through each day as it comes, but I can’t imagine how people begin to do that. I can’t imagine how someone grieving that deeply can muster the act of will to take another breath.
The sun rises and the world goes on, but not for them. They are still in darkness. All I can do is pray that eventually the day will dawn once more and the morning star will rise in their hearts (2 Peter 1:19).
O Rising Sun, enlighten those who dwell in the shadow of death.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
All of these antiphons allude to the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, with their promise of a coming king. But what kind of king? One that would rule by force and terror as all kings had in Isaiah’s time and throughout human history? Or did these prophecies point to a different kind of king? One that “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks”? (Isaiah 2:4) A peaceable king for a peaceable kingdom?
O King of the nations, save us, for our desire is to be at peace.
Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:13b-14)
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Emmanuel: God with us. This is the meaning of Christmas. In a cave—which is what the “stable” in Bethlehem really was—born to a poor teenaged girl: a powerless child of a powerless mother in the shadow of the most powerful empire the world had ever known.
God chose not to come in power and glory, but in humility. He chose not to stop all the suffering in the world—and we struggle to understand why—but he chose to suffer with us.
God is with us. In our joy and in our sorrow. He is with all the children who eyes will light up on Christmas morning when they see their presents wrapped and left under a tree, and he’s with the parents who children are not with them anymore: not this Christmas or any other.
And he is with those children too, for nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.
God is with us.