If you are at Camden Yards, you don’t sing it the way he wrote it. You have a tradition to uphold.  While he wrote, “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” you sing, “O!!!!!!!!!!!!!! say. . . .”  And that is a tradition that is well worth upholding and enjoying. But Baltimore is not alone. When the Predator’s goalie, Juuse Saros, is in net for a home game, Nashville fans hijack the anthem and shout “Juuse” instead of “O say can you see. . . .” The Washington Capitals stress the word “red,” when they sing the line “and the rocket’s red glare” since their uniforms are red. They also emphasize the “O,” stealing the Camden Yards experience in a sacrilegious attempt to honor Alex Ovechkin; but I never bought into the “better red than dead” propaganda. Winnipeg Jets fans honor their ownership group (True North Sports and Entertainment) by emphasizing the words, “True North” in place of where the Canadian anthem has “the true north strong and free” (Do O’s fans hijack the Canadian anthem when they travel to Toronto and sing, “O’s Canada. . . .”?) I bet you can guess what the Dallas Stars do when the anthem asks “Whose broad stripes and bright stars. . . .” And I am pretty sure the Atlanta Braves conclude the anthem with the words “and the home of the Braves.” When you see what all these copy-cats have done to our great Baltimore tradition, all you can say is, “O the humanity!”  

In this series, we are looking at the seven “Greater Antiphons.” Now, sometimes the “Greater Antiphons” go by another name. More commonly, they are called (get ready to shout), the “O Antiphons” because all seven stanzas begin with the vocative particle “O” (O’s!!!!!!!). Now, that alone should endear these antiphons to your heart! Not only that, but these antiphons are really old with some arguing to a date before the 11th century and some saying they might actually date back to the 6th century! O boy, that’s old! And as we said last week, these antiphons were sung or recited during Vespers on the week before Christmas and are the basis of our Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” In my opinion, those reasons alone should make you love these antiphons.   

Oh, but wait, because there is a lot more to love here! Each of the seven antiphons are solemn prayers to Jesus, imploring him to pour out his grace upon us in a way that corresponds perfectly with the name of Jesus we use in the prayer. As such, in the first stanza we cry out for wisdom because Jesus is the incarnate wisdom of God. Oh, but the names we use are not chosen randomly. Instead, they all are names of the Messiah that are found in the prayers and words of two of Israel’s greatest prophets, Isaiah and Micah. And to help distinguish which antiphon someone is talking about; scholars have designated each stanza by the name of Jesus that it uses (plus the vocative particle!). So, today’s antiphon is the “O Adonai” antiphon.

The whole antiphon reads: 

O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel,
you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush,
and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.
Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us.

Now, originally the “O Antiphons” were written in Latin, and so you can be excused if the “O Adonai” doesn’t jump out at you, but it is most definitely there. It’s just translated into English (O Lord). Now, technically, “Adonai” is a Hebrew name for God. In fact, it is one of the most prominent names for God in the Hebrew Bible. Oh, but be careful. Capitalization here is critical. When the word “Adonai” is used in the Hebrew Old Testament, translators will capitalize the “L” (Lord).  When the word “Adonai” is used to speak of another human (someone like a king), translators will leave the whole word in lower case (lord).  And when interpreters want to translate the Tetragram (Yahweh), they will capitalize the whole word (LORD). And when conscientious Jews are reading the Old Covenant and come upon the Tetragram, they will respectfully decline reading the word and. instead, read “Adonai” in its place. In Judaism, there is a holiness attached to the name of God, something that we regularly ignore. But that is all background information. The important point is this: At the core, the word “Adonai” means “master” (hence “lord” or “king”) and expresses the idea that God is sovereign over all aspects of our lives. We can say it this way: Because Jesus is Adonai, it means that he is the Lord our King. He is, as the antiphon says, the “Ruler of the house of Israel.” We see this emphasis in one of my favorite prayers (unsurprisingly, it’s from the Book of Common Prayer): “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that people from all over the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.”  But it can be reduced even further.  The first Christian creed said it this way: “Jesus is Lord.”

This prayer continues with an elaboration of the title. Since God is our king, we would expect him to lead us and to express his will. We see these two features in the second line: “You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.” Francis Schaeffer wrote a great book entitled, He Is There, and He Is Not Silent. God appears to his people. He is there with them. And he is not silent. He gives them his law. God expresses his will for us because he is our King, our Adonai.  Jesus said it this way, “Follow me.”  

And that leads us to the last two elements. First, there is always the request for God “to come.” And then, there is the request itself: “Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us.”  There are several echoes of Isaiah here. First from Isaiah 40:9-11: 

“You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

From Isaiah 51:4-5:

“Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: Instruction will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.”

From Isaiah 59:1-2, 9-10 and 15-16:

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.

You’ve got to love Isaiah at Christmas! We cry out to our king, “Our sin has ruined us, and we are overwhelmed and helpless. Come and with your mighty arm, redeem us and set us free so that we can see your glory, follow you and obey your will.”  

But this blog should be more than an analysis of what this second antiphon includes, but should also ask questions about how it should move from the page and into our lives. So, where does this antiphon speak into our lives? Here are four questions to think about as we approach Christmas.

  1. There used to be a lot of talk differentiating “accepting Jesus as savior” and “acknowledging him as Lord.” Jesus answers this question rather sharply. In Luke 6, he asks a very disturbing question (vs. 46): Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” And after washing the disciples’ feet, he said this to the twelve (Jn. 13:13-15): “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” If you were to stop and evaluate your life right now, would you conclude that you don’t really know Jesus, that you only know him as your Savior, or that you know him as your Lord? If Jesus was the one doing the evaluation, what do you think he would say?
  2. In explaining the name Adonai, the antiphon announces that God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now, far from the law being a means for us to “work” our way to heaven, it instead shows us our sin. Romans 3:20 says as much: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” What are three things you can do to make your personal time of confession of sin more meaningful?
  3. What role do “good works” play in your life? Do you think they are a nice accessory, an important, but not essential part of discipleship, or a very essential aspect of what it means to be a Christ follower? Is your life producing enough good works?
  4. Peter tells us to “Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life” (1 Peter 3:15—CEV). In what specific areas of your life do you need to honor Christ and let him be Lord?

As I consider these questions, I realize that I fall far short of where I ought to be. Maybe that is why these antiphons are called the “O Antiphons,” because when I really think about them, my response is always the same, “O, another area where I am failing more than I am succeeding.” That awareness leads me to at least this one conclusion: I need to pray this prayer now more than ever: 

O Lord and Ruler of the Church,
you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush,
and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.
Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us.