When we come together this 1st Sunday of Advent and sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we will be participating in a sacred Advent ritual more than a thousand years old. It takes us back to monastic life in the 8th- or 9th-century. For the week leading up to Christmas, they would sing a sequence of Latin “O antiphons” (an antiphon is a short chant like a refrain based on scripture). The purpose of these O antiphons was to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas with a sequence of scriptures. Each day was a different O antiphon, climaxing with this one. Click here for a lovely rendition of the Latin original.
Yet there’s more to this particular antiphon than just its advanced age. There is an acrostic (jumbled letters) challenge here (devised on purpose by the monks) in the best secret code tradition! Here is the list of the 7 antiphons; look at the first letters in each second word (SARCORE):
O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (key of David)
O Oriens (dayspring)
O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
Read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “ERO CRAS,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” When the “O Emmanuel” antiphon was sung on the 7th night, the meaning of the liturgical riddle was revealed through the completion of the acrostic.
In the singing they were professing their HOPE as an expectation of Emmanuel (God with us). This Sunday we light the advent Candle of Hope, not as some secret message but as a universal gesture of faith, not as mere wishful thinking but as anticipation with assurance.