On December 17 we enter the final stage of joyfully penitential preparation for the Lord’s manifold Advents. St Bernard (d 1153) preached in an Advent sermon that, in His first coming, Christ came in the flesh and in weakness; in His second, He comes for our rest and consolation; in His third, He will come in glory and in majesty. The second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.

In the liturgy of Advent, John the Baptist reminds us to “make straight His paths”. When we come to the Lord in death, or He comes to us at world’s end, He, our Judge, will make straight every path whether or not during this life we have striven to straighten it beforehand.

Speaking of seven days before the Vigil of Christmas, December 17, this is when the Church of Rome begins to sing at Vespers the ancient “O” antiphons for the Magnificat, Mary the Virgin Mother of God’s mighty prayer paean when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and praised God for His favour and wondrous deeds. There are seven of these special antiphons. Their texts spring from the prophetic and wisdom books of the Old Testament.

These fervent prayers for the Lord to come swiftly are called the “O” antiphons because they all begin with the exclamation letter “O!” They address Jesus by evocative messianic titles. When we sing the antiphons daily in Latin, we unveil

a clever construct. His titles are: Sapientia (Wisdom), Adonai (Lord), Radix (Root), Clavis (Key), Oriens (Rising Sun), Rex (King) and Emmanuel (God With Us). The first letters of each title, starting with the last and working backwards, spell out EROCRAS, that is, “ero cras… I will be (there) tomorrow”.

The familiar song O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a reworking of the seven O antiphons. When you sing it, you join yourself to the vast throng of our forebears arcing back across centuries and spanning the whole of the earth who prayed as all Christians ever have, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

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