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The Great Antiphons

Monday, December 18, 2006
Now there are only seven days left before Christmas. The coming of Jesus Christ is very near. The Liturgy shapes this week in a unique way in order to help Christians concentrate on the coming of the Messiah and prepare them for Christmas Eve. One of the most beautiful features of these seven 'Golden Nights' is the singing of the 'O' antiphons, sung at Vespers each evening between December 17 and December 23. These short songs of praise accompany the Magnificat, Mary's prayer recorded by Saint Luke at the moment of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:46-55).

The 'O' antiphons have a particular musical structure and a remarkable theological depth. Their history can be traced back to the first centuries of Christianity. Each antiphon, beginning with 'O', addresses Jesus with a unique title taken from the prophecies of Isaiah and praises him for being what each title indicates he is. Each ends with a petition for God's people and with the Advent cry: 'Come'. The well known hymn 'O come, o come Emmanuel' is actually a paraphrase of these antiphons.

The seven titles attributed to Jesus in the antiphons are:

1 Wisdom (Sapientia)
2 Ruler of the House of Israel (Adonai)
3 Root of Jesse (Radix Iesse)
4 Key of David (Clavis David)
5 Rising Dawn (Oriens)
6 King of the Nations (Rex gentium)
7 God With Us (Emmanuel)

Taking the first letter of each and reversing the order - Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia - gives the Latin words ero cras which means 'tomorrow I will come'. These great antiphons carry us from our Advent preparation to its joyful climax on Christmas Eve.

Godzdogz will present these antiphons each day, sung by the Dominican student brothers in Oxford, with the Latin text, chant and a translation. They are sung according to the Dominican antiphonal which varies slightly from the Roman chant books.

In his book Hallowing the Time, Geoffrey Preston OP writes as follows about these antiphons:

In the Great Antiphons of Advent, we turn to Christ with the longing expressed in the O itself. This longing is the groaning of the Holy Spirit in us when we do not know how to pray, when we have no other words than this primordial word so close to the roots of our western experience. For our O is strictly comparable to the Hindu OM, the mystic syllable in that other part of our Indo-European tradition, the OM beyond which there vibrates that absolutely primordial and eternal unheard sound which is itself the first Cause of the universe.

The Advent Os of the Christian West go back at least to the eighth century, to those ages that we somewhat inaccurately, yet appropriately in this context, call 'dark'. From the dark ages men have called out to the Messiah to come ... We too as we sing these antiphons stand in the dark ages, vergente mundi vespere as the Office Hymn puts it, as earth draws near its evening hour ... So we pray for him to come at either end of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat.

We put all we have into that praying. In the monastic tradition it is surrounded by all the wealth of ceremonial of which the brethren are capable ... In monasteries the abbot himself in full pontifical vestments comes and stands before the great pulpit in the midst of the choir and intones O Sapientia. Night after night the senior members of the community in full vestments come out to take up the cry to the Messiah. The bells of the monastery sound throughout the singing of the Magnificat, sung as it is to the most solemn chant in the book. All that the community has to show for itself, all by which it might cut something of a figure in the world, is wheeled on; and it sings 'O come!'

SEE MORE ON: The 'O Antiphons'


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