Advent – "the coming". Whose coming? The coming of Christ Our Lord.
But surely he has already come – and gone, too? Yes and no. In historical time he has come, as a baby who grew to be a man; as a man who suffered, died, rose again and returned to heaven. That part is finished. But in each of our hearts, in each life he comes again – and again, and again. Why is it necessary for him to come so often; why not stay the first time?
Perhaps when the door is opened on Christmas Day he finds the house cluttered with celebratory bric a brac; so cluttered that there's no room for him.
Perhaps he is welcomed in – for a while. But, like a guest who overstays his welcome, Christ finds a certain indifference taking over, and then a coolness, and finally he is all but pushed out the door by the fascinating visitors that have been ushered in. Out goes Christ to stand near the door, patiently waiting to be invited back inside.
And so, like children endlessly repeating some jingle, we go through the cycle of Advent and Christmas and back to hedonistic self-centred living, year after year, with a short, perfunctory mea culpa during Holy Week immediately forgotten in Easter feasting. A sad cycle. A poor sort of life.
But once in a while troubles beset us and suddenly that beautiful Advent hymn, most ancient, most poignant, resonates in our hearts, and with the Church from centuries past we cry out:
O come, O come, Emmanuel And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
What does Christ reply?
There is a tradition coming down to us from the Church in the Middle Ages; seven short verses are sung antiphonally before the Magnificat during Evening Prayer, from the 17th to the 23rd of December, each antiphon beginning with "O" and including an Old Testament reference to the Messiah:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi . . .O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of truth.
O Adonai et dux domus Israel . . .O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in a burning bush and you gave him the Law on Sinai. O come and save us with your mighty power.
O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum . . .O stock of Jesse, you stand as a signal for the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us, and do not delay.
O Clavis David et sceptrum domus . . .O key of David and sceptre of Israel, what you open no one else can close again; what you close no one can open. O come to lead the captive from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae . . .O Dayspring, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Rex gentium et desideratus . . .O King whom all the peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one. O come and save man whom you made from clay.
O Emmanuel, rex et legiter noster . . .O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour. O come and save us, Lord, our God.
The first letter of each antiphon may be taken from the Latin to form an acrostic in reverse. Thus the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel, give us the Latin words: ERO CRAS . This phrase means "Tomorrow I will be there" – almost as if it were the response of Christ to our plea.
And so we await Christ, year after year. He comes. And we send him away again. Why?