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Joy in the expectation

Martyn Payne introduces ten specially composed prayers (or antiphons) to help us prepare to meet Christ in all the different manifestations in which he comes to us…

13 December 2020

What is Advent really about?

This year a Christian organisation in my area of outer London filmed me telling some Advent Bible stories. The videos are being used in interactive Zoom sessions for families at home on Sunday mornings. I had been asked to work with the gospel readings from the Anglican lectionary and, although I love storytelling the Bible, I have to confess I did find them a bit of a challenge. Let me explain why.

In my preparation, I realised that the focus of Advent can be rather confusing. Getting ready for Christmas is one thing – and on its own would be straightforward. But Advent’s other emphasis – the second coming of Christ – though equally important, can come over as a somewhat unnecessary and distracting.

This is especially the case with its language of the end of the world, judgement and death. All of these are of course traditional themes for this season.

To confuse matters even more, some of the readings are about Jesus as a grown-up, calling people to repentance and teaching his disciples. I imagined families wondering, ‘Just what is this Advent about? The stable in Bethlehem, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and Judea, or the final Apocalypse?!’

Christ has come, is coming and will come

These tensions around the various comings of Jesus may have been easier to digest over the longer period that Advent used to be, as David Cole helpfully explained in the first article in this series.

Nowadays, we have just four weeks to weave these great theological truths together! It certainly makes it harder to explain clearly, especially in our more secular age. In the words of Jerome Berryman’s Godly PlayTM Advent text: ‘The king who was coming is still coming, and this is a great mystery.’

And so I found that the past, present and future ‘comings’ of Christ began to merge in my recorded stories. More than once I wasn’t at all sure that I was making sense. Maybe I simply have to accept that this is part of the mystery!

‘The king who was coming is still coming, and this is a great mystery.’

However, prompted by this challenge, I did some research. I was interested to rediscover that Advent really only comes into its proper focus in the last week, especially from 17 December onwards.

The manifestations of Christ

In the eighth century, a series of short sung prayers were introduced in the service of evening prayer (vespers) around the Magnificat (Mary’s song, found in Luke 1:46–55). They are affectionately known as the great Os, because each one begins ‘O come’.

These Advent antiphons (short sung sentences) draw the past and present together in a series of invitations based on Old Testament prophecies of the coming of Christ. In them, Jesus is ‘the key of David’, ‘the root of Jesse’, ‘the king of the nations’ and of course ‘Emmanuel’. (You probably have already sung the twelfth-century hymn based on these prayers: ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’.)

The prayers also draw on the New Testament, with words such as ‘the dayspring from on high’, from Zechariah’s song, and with the references to the virgin Mary in the final bidding (intercessory prayer).

I also discovered that the first letter of each Latin word from the seven biddings form an acrostic, which in translation means ‘Tomorrow I will be here’. (The last one is set for evening prayer on 23 December.)

Just as these short prayers open up the mystery that Christ existed before he was born in Bethlehem, they also point forward to the Christ who grows up, is God on earth with us, healing, restoring and redeeming the whole world, so we can be ready for his glorious return.

Preparing to meet him

All this got me thinking. What new antiphons could we add, drawing on the story of Christ with us on earth, so that we are more ready to meet him? Not just as the Christ of prophecy, not just as the Christ child in the manger, but as the Christ who is Lord of all? Perhaps some additional antiphons could help us link up past, present and future on our Advent journey.

So what follows is an attempt to do just that – a series of ten short prayers that also begin ‘O come’, each one a New Testament antiphon for Advent, inspired by particular gospel stories:

Ten gospel antiphons for Advent

O Come, Lover of the undeserving,
who welcomes home
the foolish, the fearful and the failure
with extravagant celebration.

O Come, Friend of sinners,
who offers forgiveness,
to the guilt-ridden, the rule-breaker and the betrayer,
at the cost of your own life.

O Come, Teller of parables,
who unsettles the complacent, dazzles the blinded
and causes those who ‘know’ to think again,
through stories of the kingdom.

O Come, Disturber of the self-satisfied,
who exposes hypocrisy, shames piety
and brings down pride
with truth and judgement.

O Come, Healer of the diseased,
who mends the broken, sets free the imprisoned
and soothes the troubled,
with words of life and hope.

O Come, Presence of the Almighty,
heard in the cry of the hungry and thirsty, the lonely and unloved,
so we might meet with you,
in our loving of others.

O Come, Stiller of storms,
who commands the waves, exorcises the possessed
and mediates for the angry and violent,
bringing peace and stillness to all.

O Come, Welcomer of children,
who blesses babes in arms,
who places a child in the midst,
who meets us as one of your little ones,
inviting us to the necessity of new birth.

O Come, beautiful Shepherd,
showing compassion on the crowd,
speaking with a voice we can recognise,
becoming the door to our safekeeping,
with your never-failing love.

O Come, Teacher of truths
with blessings on your beloved,
with sharing of bread and wine,
with stooping to wash feet,
showing us the way we should be.

A way through the mystery

Now at last I had a way through the mystery of Advent for my video audience. For those who live with Christian hindsight, the coming of Jesus as a baby naturally leads us to remember what his coming looked like in the story of his life, his death and his rising again. In turn, that reminds us of his words of life and his costly redemption, and stirs in us a longing to see him for ourselves – which of course he promised would happen, ‘for all who love his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:8).

But then I realised something else. Long ago, way before we established our Advent liturgies and even before Christmas itself was a date on the calendar, the first Christians had understood all this so clearly. They already had their own simple Advent antiphon from the very start, which maybe we should now add to ours: the Aramaic prayer maranatha. This can be translated, ‘Our Lord has come’ or ‘Our Lord is coming’ or ‘Our Lord, please come.’ That, it seems to me, says it all!

‘Amen, come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22:20).

Martyn Payne

Martyn Payne was a BRF staff member and part of the Messy Church team until his retirement in 2018. Martyn is now a volunteer and writes the BRF prayer diary and is involved in Messy Church.

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Advent calendar hanging with a Christmas tree next to it

For more seasonal inspiration, enjoy and share this Advent A-Z from Anna Chaplain Joan Grenfell