The choir of King’s College in Cambridge
I learned this song, the O Antiphon song we call “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” when I was 18. I’d heard it my whole church life, I just hadn’t paid much attention to the words until I was older. That Advent and Christmas season in 1996 taught me so much. I still marvel at the sparkle and shine of those weeks and days, pondering over them the way Mary ponders over the face of her beloved Babe. It was the last year my whole family was together, just a few months before my father died and my last Christmas before leaving for college. My high school choir was singing this song for our winter recital, and the director asked me to sing the opening solo. My heart leap every time we practiced and I loved singing this song, but I had a hard time relaxing and hitting this one particular note. I fussed and fretted and had a nightmare or two about it, and finally told my choir director that I just couldn’t sing this song. I didn’t trust my voice, didn’t trust myself not to cry, and wasn’t even sure I’d be able to be at the concert because my dad was so sick. I made a hard choice, but it was the right one. Even now, all these years later, any time I have the chance to sing this song, I sing it double-loud. God has kept every promise to me—to come and ransom me, to give me wisdom, to help me remember my place in the world, to open doors that seem sealed shut.
This song tells us a very important story, like most songs do. It comes from the heart of God’s people, from across thousands of years, and still means something holy and hopeful every single time we sing it. With titles and word pictures taken from the prophet Isaiah’s conversations about the Messiah, we see all the ways Jesus has come to reconcile the world to himself. Each verse reminds us of a different promise God has bought into being, has made come true, in the person of Jesus. It’s a super churchy song that might not sound like a lot of the songs you and your family hear on the radio or sing in the car, but once you start singing it…you just can’t stop. As you sing it, you might be reminded of the promises God has kept in your own life and in the life of your family. You might find yourself sharing memories with your littles or calling old friends or close relatives to remember something funny or hard or sweet with them.
In our office, we love the O Antiphons so much that we decided to spend the pages in our Advent book on telling the story of this song. People from all over the church wrote in their thoughts and memories and hopes about what it means for us to ask God to send Jesus to us, and what it means when God answers that prayer. Some people sent us pictures or poems. Others sent us stories and memories. A few of us added in our own thoughts and prayers, and we made a book about the O Antiphons that you can find at www.forwardmovement.org. You may start hearing this song early in Advent, either in church or on the radio. You may not hear it until around December 17, when some churches start singing the song one verse at a time, until they sing all the verses on Christmas Eve. It’s a fun game to play that way—something you might consider adding to your Advent Wreath routine (if you have one—and if you don’t, that is totally ok, too) or just a way to get through a super antsy carpool afternoon.
The Antiphons are verse-long prayers that remind us of God’s faithfulness to us, of how God dwells among us, of how God is making all things new—even now.
May you find yourself singing in your heart, adoring the One who was, and is, and is to come. Sing it loud.
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