In the church we have our own vocabulary. If you think about it this is how our world works in different cultures and places, each culture has its own language. The church is no exception. We have our own words and even sometimes it seems we sound funny to the rest of the world. We use words like incarnation, trinity, justification, sanctification and even words like homousious. We Christians have a rich heritage decorated with words that teach us what God wants us to know about his love for us in Christ Jesus. Sometimes the languages of our world just fall short, but yet God still sees fit to come to us in plain language that we can understand and learn. One such phrase is antiphon”.
“Antiphon” isn’t so much a strange word, it is just two Greek words, “anti” and “phone”. It means opposite voice. This word arose out of the church’s culture of worship. Sometimes when singing/chanting the church would sing to one another. This happens in worship when certain verses are sung by men, women or children, e.g., men v1, women v2…etc. This gave the worshippers the opportunity to serve one another in telling each other the great promises of God’s salvation. This pattern of singing to one another is also between pastor and congregation.
So the early church perhaps as early as the 7th century began what are called the O Antiphons. The O Antiphons were part of the daily worship of the people. Each day the church would have an afternoon service for the people to attend the days before Christmas. Each of these days had a focus in the prayers on the names of Jesus given in the Old Testament. The O Antiphons were used in the afternoon service between the choir (or pastor/director) and the people.
I encourage you, this Advent in reflection on how we receive Christ rightly in our own day in the midst of pandemics, political turmoil, wars and rumors of wars. That Christ still comes (advents) to us in the same ways he always has as his people face the results of living in a fallen world tainted by sin and headed into destruction. Advent is not a rush preparing for Christmas. The purpose of Advent is to slow down and reflect on the teaching about how Christ comes to us now and how do we in faith rightly receive him?
proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
pervading and permeating all creation,
mightily ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
— Ecclesiasticus 24:3; Wisdom 8:1
O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the burning bush
and gave him the Law on Sinai:
Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.
—Exodus 3:2; Nehemiah 9:13
O Root of Jesse,
standing as an ensign before the peoples,
before whom all kings are mute,
to whom the nations will do homage:
Come quickly to deliver us.
— Isaiah 11:10; 52:15
O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and no one can close,
you closed and no one can open:
Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness
and the shadow of death.
— Isaiah 22:22; 42:7
splendor of light everlasting:
Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
And in the shadow of death.
— Zechariah 6:12 (Vulgate); Luke 2:78-79
O King of the nations, the ruler they long for,
The cornerstone uniting all people:
Come and save us all, whom You formed out of clay.
— Jeremiah 10:7; Haggai 2:7; Isaiah 28:16
Our king and our Lord,
The anointed for the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
— Isaiah 7:14; 33:22
These O Antiphons became the basis for the 19th century hymn O Come O Come Immanuel.
O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust Thy mighty power to save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Isaiah 11:1 and 10:
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
“And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And His resting place shall be glorious.”
Isaiah 4:2-6, preaching a hundred years before the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and some seven hundred years before the fulfillment of the Promise:
In that day the Branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious; And the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and appealing For those of Israel who have escaped. And it shall come to pass that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded among the living in Jerusalem. When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning, then the Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a overing. And there will be a tabernacle for shade in the daytime from the heat, for a place of refuge, and for a shelter from storm and rain.
The O Antiphons have had such staying power because they are the word of God and they teach the depths of the faith that is a light in our dark world. Matthew 2:23 fulfills the Old Testament prophecy of Jesus as the root/branch of Jesse. Because of sin and evil the “original family tree” has been cut down. That even by a tree humanity is cast into sin, by another tree we are restored. Yet you see it isn’t just this tree or that tree, it is faith in God’s promise that your sins are forgiven. The first tree gave the promise, “You have all you need.” Adam and Eve didn’t believe. They trusted their eyes. The second tree, the cross, again, “Here, God shows you he will forgive you and in Jesus is all you need.” The cross of Jesus planted in the earth blooms and a new branch, a new root is grown that cannot be moved. This is also the basis for the Christmas hymn “Lo How a rose e’er blooming/Behold a Branch is Growing.”
- Behold a branch is growing
As of loveliest form and grace,
As prophets sung, foreknowing;
It springs from Jesse’s race
And bears one little Flower
In midst of coldest winter,
At deepest midnight hour.
- Isaiah hath foretold It
In words of promise sure,
And Mary’ s arms enfold It,
A virgin meek and pure.
Through God’s eternal will
This Child to her is given
At midnight calm and still.
Finally in the book of Revelation the book end to the Christmas and Old Testament.
“And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.”
Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.
“I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”
If you think about it, our whole life is an “antiphon”, a giving back to God what he has given us by his creating word in Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. God has given us life and all that we have. He spoke the universe into existence and in answer we give him thanks, praise and serve and obey him. We do this with our voices but also our lives lived out in faith. This is the new song the Psalms so often speak of, “Sing to the Lord a new song”, a new song of faith.
Advent is a time to reflect on how the Lord “antiphons” with you. How does he first come to you? He doesn’t come how we might always want. He doesn’t come in all the flashy ways the world tries to distract us with, riches, power, influence and popularity. Is that how Jesus ever came to his people? No.
Christ comes to us in humble means, word and sacrament. That is how his earthly ministry was characterized. He preached, he pointed to the promises of God delivered through his body and blood and the waters of baptism. These are promises that God never leaves you without a voice, both from your lips and from your good works. Don’t let your words and life be an “anti” as in against the gracious gifts of God, but an “antiphon” an answer of thanks and praise.