After December 17, the focus of the Advent liturgy changes and we direct our thoughts towards the imminent birth of Jesus. One of the most beautiful ways in which this change of mood and growing sense of expectancy can be perceived and celebrated is with the so-called “O” antiphons.
In these antiphons the Church calls out directly to the Messiah with mystic titles drawn from the Old Testament: “O Root of Jesse, O Wisdom, O Dayspring … come!” They are a beautiful expression of the longing of the world for its Saviour. They were originally sung as the antiphon at Vespers, as darkness falls, for it was and will always be as the world is descending into darkness that Christ will come to save. They are already familiar from being amalgamated into that great Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, which ought, therefore, not to be sung until now.
Dom Prosper Guéranger, the founder of the monastery of Solesmes and great reformer and reviver of French monasticism, says in his book The Liturgical Year that these antiphons “contain the whole pith of the Advent liturgy”, and are accompanied by a chant replete with “melodious gravity” (not my translation!). In a monastery such as St Pierre de Solesmes this is how one prepares for Christmas. That’s probably a far cry from how most of us will use these last days. But we should be aware that the way we pray is the way we believe. Something in us, rather than worrying about whether every “thing” is ready for Christmas, should be crying out for the Messiah to come to our heart, to come to those places where the light is fading, where sin still reigns, where redemption is needed. We can use the seven words of the “O” antiphons even without fully understanding them because they are scriptural words and contain a force by virtue of being uttered.
They are, in order: O Sapientia (Wisdom), O Adonai (Lord), O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (Key of David), O Oriens (Dayspring), O Rex Gentium (King of the Nations), O Emmanuel (God-with-Us). The initials of the Latin titles form a kind of acrostic: “SARCORE” reversed is Ero cras, or “I will be (there) tomorrow”, which is perfect. This was the kind of detail so beloved of medieval minds.
Scholars agree that the ‘O” antiphons were in use by the time of Charlemagne, but some claim to find references as far back as the 5th century. The Bodleian and the British Museum both have antiphonals from the 11th century in which they appear. John Henry Newman translated them into English in one of his Tracts for the Times. They are a staple part of that special Anglican genre, the Advent carol service. It might also be argued that the custom of the famous Nine Lessons and Carols service from King’s College, Cambridge, where the first reader is a young chorister and the subsequent readers ascend a hierarchy finishing with the Provost, owes its origin to the monastic custom whereby the “O” antiphons would similarly be shared out among the monastic hierarchy.
If you are feeling, as I suspect many of us should be, that Advent has somehow passed you by without maximising its benefit, I suggest writing these titles in order, each on a separate blank postcard. Write them in English, or Latin, or both, and make them a visual focus of each day’s prayer from the 17th to 23rd. You could have the card on your desk at work, in your prayer book, on the mantelpiece or on the kitchen counter. Just using the title to address Jesus would be a prayer of great power. Say “O Wisdom, O Jesus, come; O Dayspring, come and save me,” etc.
By using them, by giving your Messiah names which come out of prayerful experience of an Israel who waits and a Church who waits, you can appropriate to yourself that desire for salvation which is verbalised not at the semantic level of what the word means, but rather at the level of what it means to know someone’s particular name and to call them by it in love and anticipation of their response.
To call out to the one who is to come is, in the words of Dom Guéranger, “To share in these last and most earnest solicitations of the Church imploring her Spouse to come, to which He at length yields.”
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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