“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a beautiful hymn that we hear frequently throughout Advent. It has seven verses, each of which come from one of the O Antiphons. These are seven antiphonal prayers specifically used during the Church’s evening prayer from December 17 to 23, leading up to the Nativity of Our Lord. The O Antiphons look back through the history of salvation presented in Sacred Scripture, and they cry out for the long-expected Messiah who is the culmination of that history. Praying with these titles and antiphons has the potential to make Advent deeply memorable. Every time we hear these words and images, or sing the hymn, our expectation of God-with-us is kindled. This series of reflections is offered in hopes that individuals and families will be ready to pray the O Antiphons in the final week before Christmas eve; that they will be able to savor the birth of Emmanuel in that Bethlehem stable.
O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!
The very first O Antiphon, prayed on December 17, focuses on the means that God uses to guide and direct us, specifically wisdom and knowledge. The Bible is full of references to divine wisdom. The earliest reference is found in the book of Deuteronomy, the second law spoken to Israel after they had wandered in the desert, and as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses, given authority to speak for God to Israel, said to the people: “Behold, I have taught you statues and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding…” (Dt. 4:5-6; emphasis added). For this nation, very specifically, keeping God’s law was the source of wisdom, the path to right knowledge.
In addition to the Torah, there is an entire segment of the Old Testament gathered under the collective title of “wisdom literature.” It includes the Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and other writings. One of the most philosophically and theologically rich books of the Old Testament is The Wisdom of Solomon, which reveals the personified Wisdom through whom God created the world. On every page of that great collection of literature, the mystery of God’s power and love is revealed and proclaimed. Anyone who reads and ponders those pages finds the path to the deepest and fullest knowledge available.
One reality becomes particularly apparent while reading the wisdom literature. In the eighth chapter of the Proverbs, the Wisdom of God speaks: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Prov. 8:22-23). Later, in The Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom points toward the Incarnation: “I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh…” (Wis. 7:1). Specifically, these passages in the Old Testament prophesy and point us toward Jesus Christ. He is the “Wisdom of our God Most High.”
In St. Luke’s Gospel, we read about the wisdom present in the young Messiah. After his parents presented him in the Temple on the fortieth day after his birth, we read, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk. 2:40; emphasis added). The very next Gospel episode presented to us is the finding of Jesus in the Temple after he had been missing for three days. He is found sitting with the teachers of the torah, asking questions. In that moment, he seems to be fulfilling what is written in the Old Testament: “The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction…” (Wis. 6:17). At the end of that episode, we read that Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph; and that he “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:41-52).
On December 17, as we pray this antiphon with the Church, it is good to ponder a few questions. How have I seen God’s wisdom, power, and love in creation? How have I found wisdom in keeping God’s commandments? If I haven’t kept God’s commandments, am I willing to make an attempt in the near future? How else is God calling me to grow in wisdom and knowledge? How can I be filled with wisdom, as Jesus was, during this Advent and Christmas season?
**This translation of the O Antiphons is taken from the translation available on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: https://www.usccb.org/prayers/o-antiphons-advent.