These Great Antiphons help us to prepare a place for Jesus Christ, so that He might lay upon the straw of all our desires
The neighborhoods which dot the Potomac River are brightly lit now. Christmas lights seem to appear steadily throughout the weeks of Advent. How they appear is mostly hidden from view. Some homes are almost impossibly illuminated, replete with inflatable snowmen, minions, or, more tastefully, nutcrackers. Many surely light up their homes as a kind of manufactured anticipation, a secular advent for restless desire. Yet for others, the external lights are but signs of an interior hope.
For many centuries, the Church has spent this last week of Advent illuminating the heart by those interior lights called the Great “O” Antiphons. They begin tonight, and you can participate in them. If you do, they will enlighten the rooflines of your soul as they have done since the fifth century (according to Boethius) and certainly since the eighth century.
The Great “O” Antiphons — named for that perfect letter with which each antiphon begins — are recited or chanted before and after the Magnifcat at Vespers from December 17-23. Seven antiphons for the seven last days of Advent are filled with ancient longing for Christ.
Even if you think you’ve never heard these great antiphons before, they will seem profoundly familiar to you. If you have ever sung Veni, Veni, Emmanuel — O Come, O Come Emmanuel — then you already know the gist of several of them. If you have ever read the prophets of Israel, then you know them in your bones. But to pile them up, to count them by the sun setting on the last seven days of the world before Christ comes again, is also to know for the first time.
Each antiphon begins with a burning desire for Christ to come — a fire which cannot be bought.
Tonight — December 17th — we address Christ as that Wisdom eternally spoken by the Most High God: O Sapientia! “Ordering all things sweetly,” we beg Christ to come and teach us wisdom and prudence. Christ is right order itself, the directive principle for the governance of everything that exists.
On December 18th, we use that ancient circumlocution for the Lord whose Name is so holy that it must not be uttered: O Adonai! The One who spoke to Moses “in a flame of fire in the bush,” the One whose back alone could be seen at Sinai, the One who gave Israel the Law is also about to reveal Himself in the confines of a manger.
God once led a prophet named Samuel to a shepherd named Jesse to offer a sacrifice that would sanctify his family tree and anoint a new king of Israel: David. After the great reign of David, Israel’s hopes were set upon another king who would come from this sanctified line. On December 19th, we recite those words of the prophet Isaiah: O Radix Jesse! “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the people; unto him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.” The antiphon proclaims that kings shall shut their mouths before this long-awaited root of Jesse.
As evening sets on December 20th, we can grasp by the heart the key of David: O Clavis David! What sort of key is David’s key? David used it to free Israel, but it is by that same key that captives may set free forever. That is the key that Christ holds — a key which opens that which can never be shut again, a key which closes the door on darkness and opens us to perpetual light. This is the key for which our hearts should burn.
Our hearts should face eastward, towards the Dayspring, towards the splendor of Eternal Light: O Oriens! The antiphon for December 21st calls him the “Sun of Justice” who can enlighten those whose judgments sit in darkness — how many of our judgments or the judgments of others are unjust? How much do we need the Sun of Justice to illumine the nations? O Come, O Come!
O Rex Gentium — we say the words, “O King of Nations,” to which the antiphon adds, “and their Desire.” On December 22nd we beg the “Desire of Nations” to come and save us from our torrential downfall into nothingness. “Come and save man,” save Jew and Gentile alike, O King, O Desire of Nations! Extraordinary to think about Christ’s Kingship as Desire Itself — the Desire which precedes and exceeds all our restless desires which lead us nowhere unless they find their rest in Him.
Finally, the last of the great antiphons: O Emmanuel! God with us as King, as Lawgiver, as the Hope of nations, as Savior, as “Our Lord and Our God” — Advent culminates all of Israel’s hopes, and the hope of all nations, in One who is to come, and who has come to us through Mary’s immaculate womb.
There is often so little room in our hearts. But the Great Antiphons of this last week of Advent help us to prepare a place for Jesus Christ, so that He might lay upon the straw of all our desires.