In a Time of Preparation: The Great Antiphons of Advent

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by Chris McDonnell

The Season of Advent moves on apace, with the last full week approaching, the fulfillment of our journey. Mayhem in the High Street and an increasingly heavy thud of cards on the hallway mat confirm the advancing days.
There is however another way that the final week of Advent has been marked in the Church, a way that is a beautiful theology of the Coming that we are about to celebrate.
It involves words of Scripture, mainly taken from Isaiah, to trace the story and has been part of our liturgical treasure over many centuries. The passages have been given the general title of the ‘O’ Antiphons, named from the opening of each one.
In the great daily prayers of the Church, the Magnificat is always said or sung as part of Vespers, the evening prayer. During the final week of Advent the Antiphons that precede and conclude the Magnificat during that week are those that we call the ‘O’ Antiphons. They were part of the office of the Church in the Middle Ages although their gathering together can be traced back still further. They can be found today in the books of the Liturgy of the Hours for Advent, for the days from December 17th through to December 23rd. They tell the story of the expectations of the Messiah, repeatedly using the simple word of longing, ‘Come!’
Not only are they found in Evening prayer, but also appear in the daily lectionary in the Gospel acclamation during celebration of the Eucharist during that week. They offer expectancy that the long wait is nearly over, that the invitation to ‘Come!’ is about to be fulfilled.
Maybe it is time to quote these words that have been held in awe for so long. It has been said that they create ‘a poetry that fills the liturgy with splendor’.

 December 17

“O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge”.

The O Sapientia antiphon – the Wisdom of the Lord offered to sustain and guide us.

December 18

“O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!”

The O Adonai antiphon – a Leader for the people in direct line with Moses the law-giver.

December 19

“O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!”

The O Radix antiphon- the Root from which all grows, an unbroken line of continuity.

December 20

“O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!”

The O Clavis antiphon – the Key that opens a door, the way in to the light.

December 21

“O Radiant Dawn,
splendour of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death”.

The O Oriens antiphon – the Radiance and ultimate glory of God to guide and assist us.

December 22

“O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!”

The O Rex antiphon – the King who is over all, who is the Savior of mankind.                                                 

December 23                               

“O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!”

The O Emmanuel Antiphon, the antiphon most familiar to us through the Advent hymn, ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’. The name ‘Emmanuel’ comes from the writings found in Isaiah– ‘God is with us’, the culmination of our longing, the conclusion of a narrative to be found in a stable in Bethlehem. There is, contained in these brief antiphons, a succinct summary of the theology of our Advent journey, our expectation of the Coming of the Messiah.
Not an easy journey, in fact one filled with hazards and dangers, stones and pitfalls, but a worthwhile one, offering as a gift to us the birth of a child, the Jesus Child, Emmanuel, God with us.
In the hurry and bustle of the final days of Advent, it would be worth taking these daily words from scripture and finding a quiet place just for a few moments to reflect on their meaning. The four candles of the Advent wreath have been lit round the central Nativity candle, the ‘O’ Antiphons have been sung and in our disturbed and troubled world, it is Christmas once again. Every blessing this year, go well, secure in the Coming of the Lord.

This work originally was published in CATHOLIC TIMES UK on December 16th. 

5 comments

  1. I’m always reminded of the “secret” message within the antiphons. The latin phrase “Ero cras” is formed after reversing the order of the first letters of each day’s antiphon. E from Emmanuel, R from Rex, etc. Ero cras is translated “tomorrow I will come”, as in Jesus’ arrival at Christmas.

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