The power and the beauty of the O Antiphons

Sano di Pietro - Madonna and Child

Like many peripheral things which stick in the mind I can still remember the lines of French poetry which the BBC broadcast to the French Resistance as the code to signal the advent of D-Day. To those who waited, these sonorous words conveyed the unleashing of an awesome power, they announced the dawn of liberation.

It’s a slightly cumbersome analogy, but hearing the O Antiphons each year reminds me a little of that. This strange and rather beautiful-sounding poetry is a signal to those who wait with expectation for the unleashing of God’s liberation. These few words are the Church’s code for telling us to expect mighty acts. To those who know the code, they are like a clarion call to action.

The waiting and the love and the longing they express are on a huge scale. The Church echoes the voice of Israel and her hope for a Messiah kept alive down the ages through her tortuous history, the promise of the Prophets.

These antiphons have the authentic sound of Advent in that they look to God’s past actions and on them predicate an even more wonderful future of His presence in the world. The O Antiphons draw their mysterious titles from the Old Testament and from the Apocalypse with its promise of a new heaven. They call God by a historical title, but also call out to Him to come again.

More than 14 centuries old, the O Antiphons precede and close the recitation of the Magnificat at Vespers and they are the Gospel acclamation for the weekdays from December 17. Thus they focus our minds on Mary’s waiting and on her child, reminding us that He is also the Messiah, the one whom the ages long for. They belong also in the Mass because here we see expressed the “Advent” structure of our faith. Here we both rejoice in His real presence among us and at the same time we proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes.

In the Bible names have a power over them. So with these wonderful titles. They are powerful prayers. I find, in these incredibly busy days leading up to Christmas, that it can be a real help to just write the titles of the Antiphons on a piece of card and put it somewhere where I will notice it several times a day; on the desk or the mantelpiece. Just saying them is a way of preparing the heart to welcome Him.

By these names we call out to Him with the authentic accents of those who have waited and felt the long anticipation of the history of salvation, the certainty that God would come, and we open our hearts to the future of His reign and power. These names are the ciphers to our own longing and waiting for love and wholeness and healing and judgment –the mystic, coded passwords for salvation.

The First Antiphon: O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God

“O Sapientia: O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong and gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of truth.”

The Old Testament speaks of God’s Wisdom as a personification of Him. Wisdom was with God when He made the world, delighting in the sons of men. Wisdom is a kind of empathy with the creative intelligence and goodness discernible in the ordering of the universe. Creation reflects its divine design, and therefore wisdom is also the attitude in man that most conduces to becoming one with God.

Human Wisdom means being a connoisseur of God’s “personality” as it is revealed in creation.

In the O Antiphon is a poetic way of explaining the relationship between the God of infinity and a finite, created world. Never could the Old Testament authors have guessed the true import of their words: “When peaceful night lay over the earth your eternal Wisdom leapt down from your throne.”

The eternal God comes leaping down to earth, bringing order and truth to my life. There is nothing random or fatalistic about the circumstances in which I find myself. I can embrace all that happens to me in the confidence that He holds it all together.

To discover how this is, I must welcome Him more and more deeply, surrender myself into his hands in contemplation, in prayer, in bringing my life within the ambit of His wisdom.

I must wait in tranquillity and the silence of faith, for Him to come from his throne.

The Second Antiphon: O Sacred Lord and Leader

“O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the burning bush and you gave him the Law on Sinai. O come and save us with outstretched arm.”

Adonai is the ancient name the Israelites used out of respect for the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush, Yahweh. It means “The Lord”.

This antiphon recalls the events of Exodus; how God reveals Himself to Moses and through him elects a people and leads them to freedom by the power of his arm.

For the Israelites He is simply The Lord; the Lord of history, the one who imposes His saving purpose on the world, who directs all things in ways which are strange and marvellous and unfathomable and who yet will ally himself with their fate.

The child who comes is Adonai, the Lord of all. The “outstretched arm” of the antiphon is the mighty arm of the law-giver who routs the proud and casts the mighty from their thrones but could equally be the outstretched arm of the child who embraces Mary.

For Adonai comes to be Mary’s Son, to ally Himself totally with the children of Eve, to control human history in an even more wonderful way than that revealed on Sinai.

Now a new law and covenant is revealed in the heart of Jesus, which burns with infinite love for the Father and for sinful man, and yet is not consumed. This is the new judgment given to us.

We might well echo those at Sinai on their journey to the promised land: “What other people has their God so close to them with such a law as this?”

Adonai, The Lord, brings holiness and power fearful only to that which would resist it, gentle to those who embrace it, the fire which burns all within us which is sinful without consuming us.

The Third Antiphon: O Flower of Jesse’s Stem

“O Radix Jesse: O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign to the peoples. Kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us and do not delay.”

The root of Jesse is shown to Isaiah first of all as a sign of destruction. The growth of that Davidic line stemming from Jesse has come to nothing; the kingdom is divided, the people have apostasised; all that seems fruitful and alive in the relationship of God with His people is truncated, destroyed, razed and but a stump remains.

But later in Isaiah comes another prophecy: “A shoot shall spring from the stump of Jesse… behold the maiden is with child.”

The Virgin-born son of David reminds us that God can bring life where, to our lights, it appears impossible. He can reconnect what seemed irrevocably past and lost with something new and even more wonderful.

Perhaps this Root of Jesse can speak to us of spiritual lives which feel as though they are no longer growing, of faith that seems weak and deprived of sap, or of some once-bright hope which now seems cruel against the reality of the daily struggle. It speaks perhaps of the heart which has seen hope wither, love razed by some tragedy which we find it hard to believe God would permit.

Jesus comes to bring new life rising from the very place where none seems possible out of the experience of defeat and helplessness.

From there, from the very root of these things, we can cry: “Come, do not delay.”

The Fourth Antiphon: O Key of David, O Royal Power

“O Clavis David: O Key of David, and sceptre of the House of Israel, what you open no one else can close again and what you close no one can open; O come and lead the captive from prison; those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

The title “Key of David” occurs in Isaiah. The ancient ceremony of the Queen’s Keys at the Tower of London depends on the same idea; the palace key is a symbol of royal power, just as a sceptre is. In this antiphon God’s royal power is invoked to come and lead out of prison. It is not morbid to suggest that mankind really does sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death.

Psychologists say that all adult fear is predicated on the fear of death.

How many of us have hang-ups about commitment because we are already fearful of loss? How many of us live trying to hold back time, depressed by ageing or by the relentless pace of change?

In a memorable phrase Pope Benedict XVI says: “Humanity needs eternity, every other hope is too short for it.”

If death overshadows us as something senseless and terrible its shadow must, in some way, render life worthless too, for death is its only certain outcome. There is a terrible emptiness to life, even before death comes knocking, if I cannot confront the fact of death with the hope of eternity. “But,” the Pope goes on, “if the value of a man’s life is called eternity, then this value is always his and marks his whole life.”

In the Apocalypse Jesus says: “I hold the keys of Death and Hades.” He comes with his powerful key, His Cross, to open the fearful door through death which opens us to eternity. He comes to close forever the deepest fear that those we truly love might be taken away from us. He comes to open for us the way to eternity, the key that frees us to love.

The Fifth Antiphon: O Radiant Dawn

“O Oriens: O Rising Sun, you are the splendour of eternal light and Sun of Righteouness. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Through the prophet Malachi God promises: “For you the Sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings.”

The rising sun, the dayspring, is an image of the resurrection. St Ambrose’s Easter proclamation, the Exultet, sings of Christ as that morning star who came back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on all mankind…

This antiphon comes on the Winter Solstice. Both at Christmas, as at Easter, we keep vigil, we know that the time to welcome the coming of the light is when the night is darkest. We who know the reality of the darkness of the shadow of death are now able to brave that darkness because Christ the light has dispelled its terrors. Midnight Mass is not just for atmosphere; it has a cosmological significance coming at the darkest time of the year. For our days have begun to lengthen, the light of the Sun of Righteousness shines on them, risen with healing in his wings.

Can I accept that the Sun of Righteousness arises in my heart where it is darkest, and because He is there with healing in His wings it is the beginning of the end of sin.

Let all that is in me of darkness be open to this Son and His new dawn. Let His splendour arise in me, and where there is darkness and death, let His healing pierce it with the light not just of the Bethlehem stable, but also of the Easter Dawn.

The Sixth Antiphon: O King of All The Nations

“O Rex Gentium: O King whom all the peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one. O come and save man whom you formed from clay.”

Behold I am laying in Zion a precious cornerstone, says God through Isaiah. He is inviting his faithful remnant to put their trust not in political expediency or earthly power, but to depend on Him alone to save them and rebuild their shattered lives on secure foundations. He is the one underpinning their security, ruling over all attempts to conquer His chosen.

On God alone can the man of clay depend for saving. For man is made in His image, and to the extent that he is alienated from God by sin he is also alienated from his true self. Deep within he experiences the desire for holiness and integrity, for the clay bears still the loving impress of the hand that formed it. But clay is coarse and earthbound, weighted down by the gravity of sin, stubbornly resistant to the artist’s design, and the man of clay feels the alienation and fragmentation of his world.

To feel keenly the alienation that comes from my misplaced desire and the misplaced desires of the world around me, this is the special grace of Advent. This can prompt the metanoia, the change of heart which desires redemption. I must face the dereliction and ruin of the places I have tried to build on some foundation other than his power.

For He alone underpins my true self; it cannot stand on anything or anyone else, without being dangerous and illusory. Redemption means the collapse of my pride; the remaking of me wholly to God’s design.

That design is shown in the one who comes. Henceforth the fullness of God’s love dwells within the man of clay, renewing in him the divine image and power. Built on Him alone, I can be filled with the utter fullness of God’s love.

The Seventh Antiphon: O Emmanuel

“O Emmanuel, you are our King and Judge, the one whom the peoples await and their Saviour. O come and save us, Lord our God.”

The last of the seven titles is also the most gentle and beautiful sounding – the mysterious compounding of man and God; God-with-us, the name revealed by an angel.

We can get very hung up on our search for God. We can use energy in the wrong way, looking for God “out there”. We can search for him in the past, in some real or imagined perfection of the Church perhaps, or in the future when we expect him to arrive like the cavalry, having finally heard our prayer and routed some enemy or at least some problem. We secretly expect if not visions, then spectacular experiences of prayer.

God-with-us means that our search is actually of a different kind. It requires us to go within and address not how we redouble our efforts to find Him, but how we remove the things in our lives which prevent us from recognising that He is already there; our pride, our lack of charity, our attachment to possessions.

Emmanuel’s loving presence is within, gently opening us to His infinity. It is with us in the difficulties we face, in the burden of routine, in the anxiety, in the sense of our sinfulness.

Because He is God-with-us, it is in me as I am now that His saving begins. His presence alone can allow me to live in the reality of the present moment, can allow true self-acceptance, can bring peace. It is by His will and not my deserving or efforts that he is God-withus. Can I accept that He wants me to be with him, today, in the fullness of love He offers?

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald’s 2006 Advent Supplement