Magazine article The Christian Century

O Key of David

Magazine article The Christian Century

O Key of David

Article excerpt

I'M WRITING THIS column in early November, but it will appear in the December 20 issue of the Century--a date that evokes "the bleak midwinter" of Christina Rossetti's poem, and all the reflections proper to the last week of Advent.

By December 20 our tree will already be decked out from floor to ceiling with homemade and commercial decorations. I don't see Advent as a liturgical fence to keep us from crossing prematurely into Christmas, as if the incarnation were a secret to be kept under wraps until the holy night. Nonetheless, the lessons and hymns of Advent train our hearts to keep Christmas in a quieter, more hushed register. My friend Sr. Johanna, a Benedictine nun, conveys the mood of the season in a poem that begins "In that long solemn moment of Before--/ Before the dawn, when darkness always reigns ..."

To write for Advent, as for any of the great liturgical seasons, is to set aside the pursuit of originality for its own sake. The best Christian artists, poets, and theologians take their themes from scripture and tradition, and when they employ archetypal images--the darkness before the dawn, the key that unlocks frozen hearts, the fire of divine love, the morning star that heralds the rising sun--these tropes become new again. The familiar litanies of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" sweep us along in cataracts of petition and praise. Our little coracles rise and fall on waves of inherited piety.

Yet what a rich inheritance! "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" opens the gates of Christian history, sending us back, by way of the Victorian divine John Mason Neale, to an 18th-century Latin hymn, and from there to the O Antiphons (or Greater Antiphons), sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers on the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve.

The O Antiphons, miniature marvels of biblical typology, call upon Christ under seven prophetic titles--O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King of Nations, O Emmanuel--in a sequence which has a continuous history dating back to late antiquity. Boethius alludes to them in the sixth century, and by the eighth their use is well established. They are gnomic utterances, compact little spells that point to Christ by signs that lend themselves to poetic elaboration, from the magnificent Old English Advent Lyrics in the Exeter Book anthology (which gave Tolkien his mythic hero Earendil, bearer of the morning star) to the Advent sonnets of the Anglican poet-priest Malcolm Guite, which are fresh and modern while remaining faithful to their prototypes. …

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