Oliver O’Donovan: Come!

Oliver O’Donovan

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come!”
– Revelation 22:17

…in the New Testament, the faithful pray, “Come!” A prayer from the earliest church, preserved in Aramaic in St Paul, is Marana-tha, “Our Lord, come!” And that may strike us as odd. For we could think that the Old Covenant, the time of waiting, would be the time for praying “Come!” and that after the Incarnation, since the anointed one has come, there is no further place for praying, “Come!”

Yet “Come!” is the prayer of the church, the prayer of the new times, the prayer to the one who has come. For coming is drawing near; it is an act of affinity, of friendship. And so the coming of God to man as man in Bethlehem opens up the possibility of this prayer. That he did come creates the expectation that he will come. It is like that with every kind of waiting. Expectancy is predicated on experience. Without the experience we would not know what to expect or why to expect it. Imagine you are waiting for a letter day after day, and say, “How I wish that it would come!” You can only expect it because you have some idea whom is will come from, what it will contain, and why it will be coming at this time. And that idea is formed by what you know already, of the writer, the subject, and the circumstances, for otherwise you could not expect anything. So it is with the coming of Christ. The expectancy with which we pray “Come!” springs from his having come. The past event of Christmas forms the horizon of our future. Which is why the Advent season has a double aspect, looking back to Christ’s first coming, to look forward to his coming again.

If we forget that Christ did come, our celebration of Christmas is a mere cyclical repetition, a ritual of anticipation and satisfaction which we go through every year in a kind of natural rhythm. When Christmas loses contact with past history, it loses contact with the future, too. Then we do not pray “Come!” except in pretence, as in a children’s game where danger and rescue are acted out within a cocoon of familiarity. If, on the other hand, we forget that Christ will come, the Christmas is a time of disappointment. As that rather depressive Christmas hymn reminds us:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered ling;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man hears not the love-song which they bring:

Which produces a depressing outburst:

O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and the angels sing!

That is produced by an impotent sense of history gone astray, leading nowhere. So Christmas is a time when we need to learn especially to look forward, to pray “Come!”


To help us learn to pray this one-word prayer in every circumstance of life, we are given two other brief words in the passage read to us this morning. They keep our one word in its place; they give it its context and point.

Let him that thirsts come! As we pray “come!” we ourselves come. We come to quench our thirst with the waters of life. Prayer is as such an answer to the invitation given from the other side: Ho, every one that thirsts, come to the waters! To pray “come!” is to take of the waters of life that are given to us now, to anticipate the waters of life that are to be given to us later.

There is also a sequel to our prayer, a positive answer to it, given to us even before the prayer is uttered: Yes, I come quickly! That is a promise for all of our days and for the day of our death, which opens its horizon beyond our days and beyond the days of this world’s history. Jesus has promised, I come!

From a sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, 23 December 2003. Available in the book The Word in Small Boats.