The Great “O’s”

Daily Reading for December 15

The Advent antiphons are known as ‘the great “O’s’, from the initial ‘O’ of each one, which conveys our longing for the coming of the Lord. The longings of the human heart are part of the glory of humanity. Why do people climb Everest, explore potholes, cross the Antarctic on foot or the Atlantic in a rowing boat, build cathedrals like Chartres or tombs like the Taj Mahal, write and read poetry, compose and listen to symphonies? We discover in ourselves ‘high instincts before which our mortal nature did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.’ There is a yearning for the transcendent, even among moderns who have done so much to make the world a comfortable place to live in.

It is the conviction, not only of Christians but of all who believe in a personal God, that this longing is implanted in us by God and can only be satisfied by him. All our desires are, in one form or another, a desire for God. Sometimes desires conflict with one another and with our desire for God, but when purified and graded according to their true value, they will be seen as a longing for God in his manifold being and activity. Love for things and for other human beings reaches fulfillment in subordination to love of God.

We speak disparagingly of ‘cupboard love’ in pets and children, but their frank enjoyment of the good things they receive from parents and owners shows a genuine, uncomplicated love without any attempt to analyse its constituent elements. A child-like love which looks for presents may be more pleasing to God than one which is wholly disinterested and high-minded. Other desires can be rivals to our desires for God, but they can also be included in that desire. Given a subordinate place, they can receive full satisfaction in God’s infinite bounty. The deepest longings of our hearts find their satisfaction in the coming of Christ.

The longing for God expressed in the antiphons is the pale, human shadow of God’s longing for us. God longs for us, longs for our love and devotion, longs to give us the cup of joy which is communion with him, longs to share with us the vision of eternal beauty, truth and goodness. God’s longing creates in us a human, creaturely longing for his gifts and above all for himself. The Advent antiphons articulate that longing under different figures—Wisdom, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Emmanuel—and gives us the words in which to pour out, though we may not recognize it, the deepest desire of our hearts.

From O Come Emmanuel: Scripture Verses for Advent Worship by William Marshall. Copyright © 1993. Used by permission of Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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