I am writing this as the sun is going down and the longest night of the year is closing in around us. It is a gloomy moment. My next door neighbors and those across the street who have done such a nice job of decorating their outside trees have not yet switched them on. It matches the mood of too many people on this night. The darkness and the push to “celebrate” combine to make the sad sadder,
I recently learned that it was an ancient Christian practice to begin worship services on the days of the week before Christmas, this week that has the longest nights of the year, with the O Antiphons. If you have ever heard the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” you know what the O Antiphons are.
It would take all this long night to explain the extraordinarily deep meanings of symbols like “Emmanuel” or the “Root of Jesse” that the Antiphons sing about, so I just want to focus on the word “O”. Recently, I crowdsourced the question, “How many ways can you say, “O”?
What is amazing about the word in our language — and I suspect in other languages — are the ways the same word can have opposite meanings. We can say “O” to express wonder or disgust, relief or frustration, sadness or joy, excitement or disappointment.
During this week the ancient Christians used the word “O” to express their longings; longings for wisdom and light, for justice and righteousness, and for God to be with us. It comes out of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in which she expresses her hope that the child she will bear will bring about a world in which the voiceless will be heard, the hungry will be fed, and the nobodies will become somebody.
The O of longing.
We fall into despair, not because we feel longing, but because we have become numb to it. Opioids are only one way of inducing numbness. The incessant playing of “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” from department store speakers, is another. The commercial Christmas that has become the norm in America is preceded, not by people singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in darkened churches, but by an orgy of consumption. It is no wonder that the life expectancy of Americans has gone down for the second year in a row, what do we have to live for?
But I do not want to induce more despair. I want even the least religious person in the world to find fulfillment. And the only way to find fulfillment is to experience longing first. And the way into longing is through that simple vowel, “O”.
Yoga classes often end with the class chanting the sound “Om” together. The Hindus believe that this sound is the foundation of creation — an ancient belief that not only is in harmony with our modern insight that vibration is at the heart of creation, the vibration of atoms, hearts, planets and galaxies, but it also enriches our understanding of the Gospel of John’s Christmas story, “In the beginning was the Word. . . . ”
Everything begins with “O”. It is the beginning of a sentence. It is the beginning of feeling. It is the dawning of recognition. It is the cry of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. “O” is the opposite of numbness.
When you say it on these long dark nights before Christmas, what longings come up for you?
The numb will look into the manger on Christmas morning and see another plastic doll. Those who feel the longing expressed by “O” will see a Child, New Life, Promise, Wisdom, Light, Fulfillment of Hope, the answer to every longing.