Fourth Sunday of Advent (23 December 2018)
Advent Lessons and Carols
JoAnn A. Post
For 150 years, the church in the West has been celebrating a simple liturgy called “Lessons and Carols.” First heard in 1880 in Truro, England, the pattern has expanded across the globe, in every language, every denomination, in times of both war and peace.
The most famous of this genre is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols sung at King’s College on Christmas Eve. For as long as I can remember, my little family has calculated the airing time of their BBC broadcast in whatever time zone we found ourselves, pausing our Christmas preparation to hear, again, the story of salvation in scripture and song.
In a culture addicted to innovation and numbed by novelty, this humble pattern speaks to us at a slower pace, in a gentler voice. We listen and we sing. We listen and we sing. Who would have imagined such a simple act would be so difficult, and so refreshing.
Our Advent Lessons and Carols digs even deeper into our church’s past than the 19th century. As long ago as the 8th century, a series of “O Antiphons” was in use at this time of year. “O” refers to the beginning word of each “antiphon”—a fancy church word for a sung sentence. This morning we sing five of the seven “O Antiphons,” each one naming a different attribute of God. Wisdom. Root of Jesse. Dayspring. King of the Nations. Emmanuel. (Perhaps you had never noticed that the familiar carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, is based on this set of antiphons.)
In a country that is daily rocked by news more troubling than the day before, at a time when opinion masquerades as fact, and humility is a dirty word, we return to an ancient form of worship, a sparse word of praise, a simple trust in God whose power puts to shame all earthly power, and exceeds our vocabulary to describe it.
This morning we trace the universal longing for salvation, beginning with the prophet Isaiah, concluding with the twinned voices of Mary and Elizabeth—beneficiaries of God’s grace in unexpected ways.
Sometimes we run out of words. To name our pain. To voice our joy. To shape our questions. So this morning we resort to a single word, a word that both begs and exalts at the same time. “O.” Humbly inviting God into our worship space, into our lives, into our world.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel” and teach us, again, that God is with us.
Antiphon 1: O Wisdom
Isaiah 40.1-5 Comfort, O comfort my people
Comfort, Comfort Now My People (ELW 256)
Antiphon 2: O Root of Jesse
Isaiah 11.1-10 The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him
Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming (ELW 272)
Antiphon 3: O Dayspring
Micah 5.2-5a He shall stand and feed his flock
As the Dark Awaits the Dawn (ELW 261)
Antiphon 4: O King of the Nations
Luke 1.8-17 Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace
Now, Lord, You Let your Servant Go in Peace, Briehl and Haugen
Antiphon 5: O Emmanuel
Luke 1.39-45 Blessed are you among women
Mary and Elizabeth, P. Choplin