I have liked the Advent ‘O Antiphons’ for longer than I have known what an antiphon is, for longer than I have been in the habit of using them in prayer or hearing them sung. I can’t remember where I stumbled across them — my liturgy-starved unconscious was reaching out towards them for some time, certainly — but when I did, I jumped on that Antiphon Train like it was the Polar Express.
Being no liturgical historian, I am not going to attempt to give you a potted history of the Antiphons here. For those who aren’t familiar with them, the antiphons are special, sentence-long prayers, often sung to plainchant. The are a sort of ‘bookend’ before and after the prayer/singing of the Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke. Traditionally, there is a special antiphon for each of the seven days before Christmas Eve. (Original Latin in italics with translations below:)
17 December – O Sapientia (Oh Wisdom)
18 December – O Adonaï (Oh God/Lord – a traditional Hebrew way of rendering the not-to-be-spoken name of God: ‘YHWH’)
19 December – O Radix Jesse (Oh Root of Jesse)
20 December – O Clavis David (Oh Key of David)
21 December – O Oriens (Oh Dayspring / eastern star)
22 December – O Rex Gentium (Oh King of the Peoples/Nations)
23 December – O Emmanuel (Oh God is With Us)
When it gets to the 17th of December each year, I think, Now, the antiphon-time is here! Christmas can start now. The weeks before this in Advent for me are always a busy time, full of pleasant festive things but also lots of less-than-pleasat feelings — that is the nature of adulthood, I guess. But, as I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere, Advent is a suitable time for all those Complicated Life Things; it’s a welcoming of the dark uncertainty before the dawn, the start of the Christian New Year, with a heavy emphasis on the tension between hope and doubt. As I move through Advent, scribbling my own thoughts and poems in journals, the 17th seems to shout: one week to go, and this week is a special week. Often my daily poems take their inspiration from a phrase in the day’s antiphon.
The idea of ‘theopoetics’ is that, in reaching beyond, behind and around words for meaning, poetry is able to convey something real and true and beautiful, and that what it conveys is also the aim of solid theology: theos-logos, God-speak. Crucially, this poetry includes but is not limited to authorised prayers or forms of liturgy, hymn/song lyrics or scriptural texts.
It is in the pursuit of a genuine theopoetics that I write, both with and without explicitly religious themes. For me, this brings together Christian traditions and poetic traditions; to be true to both, it is my responsibility to learn about both, explore both, subvert and pay homage to both. The antiphons are a perfect example of this process.
Though the composers of the original antiphons in Latin might not have thought of their prayers in terms of the poetic form of an ‘ode’ (either its Ancient Greek or Enlightenment Era Northern European form), the fact is that the antiphons are prayers in praise of and directly addressed to Godself. The praise and direct address is the working definition of an ode. I learnt about more contemporary odes from Pablo Neruda, who is famous for his odes, for using a form which had gone somewhat out of fashion in his day and composing many more odes to ordinary, mundane things than to his muses, his lovers, or his country.
Having the ‘O(h)’ at the beginning helps, though it’s not essential for the poetic form. Not only is O an easy vowel-sound to sing, whether one is singing plainchant or not, it turns singers and listeners immediately towards the object of the ‘O’. This turning of attention is a central aim of prayer.
Because of the slightly archaic ‘O’, odes can be hard to do well. A stopping and calling to attention is provoked by the first sound of the poem; it sets up expectations that many ode-poems find hard to fulfil. The ‘O’ makes a statement about the vast importance of what follows it. By using the O Antiphons as my inspiration, I hope that some of their odic goodness resonates with what I write, whether or not I use the ode form itself.
I’ve written about the poetics: now on to the theology! The antiphons, coming as they do in the week just before Christmas, are in anticipation and celebration of the birth of Christ, the God-human, in the messy midst of a suffering, pig-headed, gorgeously weird corner of the known universe. The titles the antiphons employ are titles for Christ, though most of them, in a narrow sense, aren’t really exclusively ‘Christian’. Not every church — I would guess not even a majority of churches in the world — would be comfortable with a person regularly addressing public prayers to ‘O Eastern Star’ or ‘O Wisdom’. The preferment of certain ways of speaking to and about God, especially with reference to masculine terms or names — Lord, King, Jesse’s son, son of David — is a sad and shameful reality of much Christian worship. And yet here, in these ancient prayers, the words used to speak to and about Christ are not just words of man-centric genealogy and governance; they are as intimate as ‘God with Us’, as cosmic and female as ‘Wisdom’, as mysteriously Hebraic as ‘Adonaï’. Much of contemporary Christological language (that is, the words we use to identify and talk about Jesus Christ) is shown to be dreadfully anaemic and really quite unorthodoxly patriarchal.
But still: we address Christ. That is to say, we address the Trinitarian God. It’s an incredibly presumptuous act, but one we do daily despite this presumption, because God has encouraged us to do it. ‘Draw near with faith’, goes the line in a communion liturgy. To draw near something is to move oneself in that thing’s direction. As a Christian, I believe that God is always already moving in my direction, in creation’s direction: drawing near.
I wrote on my theological college’s Advent Blog about ‘O Oriens’ specifically, and what it has meant for me this Advent. It has been interesting for me this year to realise that I’ve been writing Advent poems for five years now. I look back and see what each years’ meditations on the same themes say about me and about what was happening in the world — what it seemed God was doing in the world and in me — when they were written. I realise that this is the point of the Christian year and of the recycling of old prayers and sayings (that is, liturgy). They allow us forgetful humans to anchor ourselves in sacred patterns, which we need, but not to be solely defined by those patterns. If you’ll permit me to extend the metaphor: thus anchored, we are free to float and live creatively, because our anchor always reminds us that it is God whom we are addressing. Not ourselves or our desires or our role models or our enemies or our competitors or our demons, but God. And not a distant God, but one who was fucking insane enough to get born and get killed in an unfriendly world.
God’s fucking insanity is wiser than human wisdom. (That’s the Unofficial Erin Translation of 1 Corinthians 1:25, unlikely to ever be on shelves at your nearest Cis- and Hetero-nomative Family Wellspring of Life and Providence Bookstore.*) And because most of the world’s best poets have danced one the edges of sanity, I think that a theopoetics that is content to dance with Christian theological and poetic traditions does so on a pretty well-worn dancefloor. I’m not very graceful or very expert but I’m also trying not to be falsely humble. So watch out, and join in, because Advent/Christmas is the time for people everywhere to remind ourselves to get our theopoetic groove on.
* Not an actual bookstore name that I know of. Heavens preserve us from Christian bookstores, amirite?
Featured image: Uni ND blog