rex et légifer noster,
exspectátio géntium et salvátor eárum:
veni ad salvándum nos,
Dómine Deus noster.
“O Immanuel, you are our king and our judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour. O come and save us, Lord our God.”
One by one the symbols and prefigurations have passed before our eyes and each one has been set in its context, given its true meaning as a sign pointing to what is about to happen at the invisible turning-point of the history of the world. But the time for signs has passed. The title “Emmanuel” says “God-With-Us”, simply, straightforwardly, literally. We say openly what we want. “Come and save us!” That is all.
“The maiden is with child,” says Isaiah, “and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel.”
Looking back on the O Antiphons, from the last to the first, they will acquire a familiar ring to speakers of English. We sing them, in that reverse order, in the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel”.
In Latin, the more cryptically minded can take the first letter of each of the titles given to Jesus, again from last to first, to get E R O C R A S. That is, ero cras, “I will be tomorrow”. It is possible to believe that this is a coincidence or even that there is something undignified about playing with letters in the face of God. On the other hand, in the Eastern Church, acrostics are used as a vital part of the liturgy: they are characteristic in particular of the form of hymn called a kontakion. Perhaps this civilised habit rubbed off, many centuries ago, on the muddy, half-barbarian West. In any case, even the Jews did it: there are several psalms which are a sequence of meditations strung together in alphabetical order. If the earth and stars, the sun and moon, are singing the praises of the Lord, there is surely nothing wrong in making the letters of the alphabet do the same.
We have come to the end of the sequence of seven ancient antiphons. It may seem as if the countdown has ended early. After all, tomorrow is only the 24th. But this is a reminder that on truly important days we are still Jews, and the day starts at nightfall of the evening before. The 24th of December has no Vespers. The Vespers of that evening are the First Vespers of Christmas. And in many Christian countries children will be sitting staring out of the window waiting for the first star to appear so that the celebrations can begin.