Editor’s Note: Between December 17 and 23, we will be offering daily translations and renderings of the O-Antiphons from Pray Tell contributor Teresa Berger. Her introduction is below. These texts were originally published in Teresa’s book, Fragments of Real Presence (Crossroads, 2005). Advent blessings to you and yours!
Beginning with the 17th of December, the liturgical tradition marks each day until Christmas Eve with an ancient and mysterious text, one of the so-called O-Antiphons. Meanwhile, the world we inhabit—and in which the liturgical tradition has to be lived for it to be real—counts the shopping days left before Christmas. Women in particular balance the tensions of these differing yet tightly intertwined ways of marking time. It is to women’s lives, then, that I turn for insight into how to live these days. I begin with the O-Antiphons themselves, going back to the terse Latin text and its literal translation, in order then to speak afresh the deepest longing of these texts. Next, I turn to the lived lives of women in the days before Christmas and reflect on the cultural production of (women’s) desires that surrounds us. My guiding question is whether the crisscrossing of the desire voiced in the O-Antiphons with the desires of the material world can illumine a God who comes to be born among us.
The O-Antiphons are among the most magnificent and ancient compositions of the Roman liturgy. Dating back to at least the seventh century, they are antiphons for the Magnificat, chanted at Vespers on the days before Christmas Eve. They are named “O” after their introductory exclamation of longing. The number of O-Antiphons has varied over the course of the centuries, sometimes to as many as twelve, but the norm now is seven.
The O-Antiphons give voice to the deepest longing of Advent, the coming of the Redeemer. Each daily antiphon takes a different image from the Hebrew Scriptures—Wisdom, Lord of Israel, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dawn, King of Nations, Emmanuel—to plead for the coming of Christ. Together, these antiphons move toward Christ’s birth, celebrated the day after the last of them has been chanted, an event that is the answer to the pleading for the coming of the Redeemer. In English-speaking contexts, the well-known hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has popularized these O-Antiphons far beyond the confines of ecclesial tradition.