By Sister Carol Curtis, OSU
O Virgin above virgins high thine, Expectation’s joy is nigh:
The Word of God made flesh in thee: Behold! Divine the Mystery!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Advent is a maternal season, a time of hidden gestation. Some devotees christen their new calendar by penciling in the coming year’s Advent retreat: the winter cold and long nights seem to deepen their sense of expectation. The new liturgical year opens our hearts with a spirit of welcome: those who receive the Word-become-Child are themselves quickened as children of God (Jn 1:12).
In the early centuries of the Church, the Great O Antiphons gave expression to the promise of salvation. Read in reverse, the first letters of the Messianic titles of the Great O’s leading up to Christmas form the Latin acronym, Ero Cras: tomorrow I will be there. Amid jingling bells and decking the halls, O Come, O Come Immanuel sustains the anticipation of a hope infinitely greater than a gift card. Yet, less familiar is the quiet tradition of Our Lady of the O, an antiphon drawn from the almost forgotten Advent celebration of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (an old English breviary annotates: “looking shortly to be delivered!”).
This Marian Mass dates to the formative years of the liturgical calendar when in certain places the feast of the Annunciation was commemorated during Advent. Later, when the date of that feast was fixed nine months before Christmas, the Marian celebration in December focused more on the mystery of God-in-the-womb of the Blessed Virgin Mother, an unseen coming like dewfall. The Magnificat antiphon intones:
O Virgin of virgins! How shall this be? for never was there one like thee, nor will there ever be!
Drawing from the Canticle of Canticles, the Virgin’s response intimates the divine espousal of humanity:
Ye daughters of Jerusalem, why look ye wondering at me? What ye behold is a divine mystery!
Mystery. Wonder. Silent awe. Not yet the deep sighing of the Great O’s in the octave before Christmas, but the little oh! of an unexpected kindness, or the breath-taken ah! of a sunset seen out the kitchen window. These gentle courtesies attend the mystery of God within, like an aureole of baby’s breath surrounding a rosebud. A medieval English carol captures these delicate God-comings:
He came all so stille, there where his mother was, as dew in Aprille that falleth on the grass.
He came all so stille, to his mother’s bower, as dew in Aprille that falleth on the flower.
He came all so stille, there where his mother lay, as dew in Aprille that falleth on the spray.
Pause to reverence the little o moments, in which God comes so still, where we are, without a splash. Be open to receive the baby’s breath caresses of the Spirit in the little fingers expectantly opening the doors of the Advent calendar, the glistening pattern of frost on the windshield, the rush hour sunset in holiday traffic. Thomas Merton prays: To You I lift wide and bright faith-filled eyes in the night…the cold, dark, starry night.
The heaviness of those final days of expectation in the bleak midwinter is also sacred. The posadas remind us of the fatigue and disappointment of closed doors. John of the Cross sings of the Virgin, pregnant with the Divine Word, a passerby seeking shelter: Del Verbo divino la Virgen preñada viene de camino, si le dais posada! Carmelite poet Jessica Powers translates the verse and adds her own invitation:
The wayfaring Virgin, Word in her womb, comes walking your way:
Haven’t you room for the Virgin and Mother? Haven’t you room?
When Bethlehem’s coldness bids her depart, oh, say to the Virgin:
Come to my heart with your heavenly burden! Come to my heart!
Embracing Advent’s burden of hope lights a torch in the stable and prepares us to behold the bundle of joy:
Ah! Ah! Beautiful is the Mother! Ah! Ah! Beautiful is her Child!
Artwork: “Mother of Life” by Nellie Edwards
Used with permission.