The Advent antiphons (or the great “O” antiphons) are sung at Evening Prayer in the second half of Advent. Although they have an ancient pedigree, it is not known who composed them. They are referred to by Boethius, a Roman senator and philosopher (c.480-542), in the sixth century; so clearly they had been written by then, and probably many years earlier. There were once as many as 12, but they have now settled at seven (O Wisdom, O Adonaï, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Morning Star, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel).
THE practice of counting the years from the date of Jesus’s birth took time to become established. It was devised in 525 by the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus, who wished to move away from the secular system then in use, but it did not become widespread until the eighth century. The coming of Jesus was an event utterly without precedent, so profound in its meaning, and so fundamental in its nature, that it was eventually acknowledged that the only adequate way to mark it was to restart the calendar; time had indeed begun again.
The apostle Paul described the world into which Jesus was born as “without God and without hope”, and basic to the sense of a new beginning was a rekindling of hope. At Christmas, Jesus is hailed as the Christ, the One anointed of God, the Light of the world. In his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, Christians have found a source of hope that is life-changing.
What it means to hope in Christ is beautifully expressed in the Advent antiphons, which hail Jesus as the Saviour and pray for the fulfilment of the hope that his coming makes real. We may think of them as the praises of hope. The hopes that the antiphons express have an eternal quality; the seven hopes are those of people in every age: for truth, justice, freedom, a new beginning, light, peace, and love. Those who composed them drew on some significant Old Testament images, particularly from the Book of Isaiah, the work of several hands stretching over more than two centuries.
The three principal authors spoke respectively at times of crisis, suffering, and opportunity in the story of Israel — each, in a different way, a time of hope. What we see in their prophecies, and in those of other prophets like Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah, is not a narrow, personalised faith, but one that informs all aspects of life, public as well as private, political as well as personal.
It is to these prophecies that the first Christians turned in order to understand the meaning of the coming of Jesus, and the authors of the antiphons did the same. They recognised the picture of God portrayed in the prophetic images as having been fulfilled in Jesus. He was none other than the human face of the eternal God of hope.
AS WE REFLECT on these Old Testament images, the extent to which the antiphons express a public hope becomes apparent. They are so much more than beautiful personal prayers for wisdom, light, and love; they are also a sustained cry for justice, freedom, and peace, uniting the witness of the prophets of the Old Testament with the good news of the New Testament, and giving voice to our hope for a better world.
They connect the Christian hope in Christ to its Jewish roots, reminding us of the extent to which we Christians have made our faith a private thing, losing contact with its bearing on social, political, economic, and business life — though for many years now the Church has striven to regain that connection.
They focus the basic question of the faith revealed in both Testaments: Who comes first, God or me? The common good or our individual wants and ambitions? Too often we let our personal desires and our moral and political preferences shape our faith, but if we really want God to come first, then our faith should shape our lives, our ethics, our relationships, and our politics; and it is in our political and business affairs that this challenge is most demanding.
In all areas of life, but with particular urgency today in our public and business life, faith poses deeper questions than those with which we generally feel comfortable: questions about purpose and destiny. So, for example, in Faith in the Public Square (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2012), Rowan Williams argues that, in the economic sphere, faith obliges us to question the “nostrums” of recent decades, asking persistently the awkward question of what we need growth for. What model of well-being do we actually assume in our economics? As he says, “Without an answer to that, we enter just the ‘virtual reality’ atmosphere that has created (and maintained) financial disaster in the last few years.”
If we are going to be realistic about our hopes, then these questions cannot be avoided, and the Christian faith offers answers that are distinctively deeper than those of the secular world: answers which derive from the truth of God revealed in Jesus. Wherever we place ourselves on the moral and political spectrum, this is the standard by which we are judged, and — this is the hard part — if we do not see things as God sees them, it is for us to adjust our outlook. It has always been a huge challenge, and it is particularly challenging in today’s world, where powerful forces are ranged against it, even among Christians.
THE way in which faith has become a private matter would make no sense to Isaiah or the other prophets whose words inspired the antiphons. Their call is for a faith active in the public square, and not simply in our private lives, and their hope for the coming of the Messiah was a universal hope — not just for the salvation of Israel, but for all nations.
Familiarity has dulled the meaning of the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The coming of heaven on earth is the good news that Jesus proclaimed, and this is the heart of the Christian hope. For too long we have kept private virtue separate from public values. If we wonder why our hopes are not fulfilled, it is, I believe, largely because we live our lives in separate compartments; if our hopes are to be fulfilled, we need to live a more integrated life. Faith is one, and hope is one; what we do and believe in the marketplace cannot be separated from what we do and believe in the holy place.
This is an edited extract from Light in the Darkness: Exploring the path of Christian hope by Peter Sills, published by Sacristy Press at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50).