O Antiphons

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by Kim Long

After 18 years of working for the Church, I have deemed Advent the season of quiet desperation. Our Church tells us to be reflective and prepare, while secular society is already booming about Christmas, the season following Advent.

The O Antiphons are not really well known among many of my Catholic friends and co-workers until I reference the easily recognized Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” With genuine relief they say “Oh right, yes I know that song.” But those prayers hold so much more for us.

It is at this moment in our “brand new year,” that the “O’s” offer us a bridge from the last few days of Advent into the Christmas season – a bridge from the wreath with four candles, all in different heights due to the celebratory “burn” of the previous weeks observance, to the stable. They bring us from promise to fulfillment, leaving behind the frenzied rush, offering instead the opportunity to stay connected to the anticipation of Christ’s birth. And if we “bridge the gap,” we can live out those last few days of Advent with some semblance of peace rather than greeting Christmas Eve and midnight Mass with sheer exhaustion, or even worse, with the silent battle cry, that “it will be over soon and life can get back to normal.”

History: The “Great O’s,” as they are called, have been around since roughly the sixth century. Prayed in the octave of Advent from December 17 though 23, they precede the recitation of the Magnificat during Vespers. By the eighth century they were regularly used in Rome. Although they have been used more in monastic settings, the laity has full access to these prayers, both in private devotion (there is an O Antiphon chaplet) and publicly during Vespers.

Meaning: An antiphon is a verse or psalm to be sung responsively. They have a dual meaning. First that each of these antiphons is a title of the Messiah, and secondly they point us toward Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. They also form a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras” meaning “tomorrow I will come.” Acrostics are formed by using the first letters in a sequence of phrases.

Practice: What would our Christmas wish list look like if we, as adults, really gave some thought to what we are asking of God? After all, don’t we want what we ask for? Don’t we ask for what we want? In these prayers we are asking for, waiting for, hoping for the Messiah to come. What would that look like? How would He arrive? Would we recognize Him?

O Sapienta, O Wisdom

“Come with outstretched arms and redeem us.”

In the year 2000, I was working in my first church parish. The pastor ordered an exquisite statue of Mary and the child Jesus. The beauty of it overtook me; it was beyond any I had seen in a religious article. I asked him what “version” of Mary this was, and he told me “Seat of Wisdom,” Sedes Sapentiae in Latin.

She lived on my work desk for a time, and when I gazed upon her serene face I would be calmed almost at once. This came in particularly handy when our office handled calls for Christmas baskets. Each time I began to feel frustrated, there she was, seeming to tell me my heart should not be troubled. And miraculously, it wasn’t. According to Webster’s, wisdom is defined as the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships. Each day I am presented with situations, and approached by people who need answers. Be it my own family or my church family, I am so aware that my wisdom isn’t sufficient but God’s is.

O Adonai, O Lord 

“Come with an outstretched arm to redeem us.”

One of the definitions of redeem is “to free from what distresses or harms us.”  In an adult education class given years ago by the Greco Institute, our instructor told us “God is God and I am not and I am glad.” On the surface this sounds like a pithy, almost silly remark, but it is something I have considered since I first heard it. I have a friend who suffers from different levels of anxiety about nearly everything. When she asked me why I thought this was, my answer was rooted in this remark. She was not opposed to belief in God and religious practice, she was simply “unchurched.” I told her that if I had to believe everything, every decision, action, outcome depended only on me and not on God, I would probably be just as anxious as she is. She looked at me quite intently over her coffee cup and said, “You may be right, but how do I begin?” I shared the teacher’s statement with her and that sparked a genuine conversation, a true seeking of information, not just a platitude filled coffee klatch.

O Radix, O Root of Jesse

“Come and save us, and do not delay.”

Root has several definitions, but here is one worth considering: the unseen part which anchors and supports. My rootedness is something I need to reconnect with regularly. A few years ago I just “didn’t feel Catholic,” or in my estimation, not “Catholic enough.” These moments happen to us all. I longed for the feeling I had as a new Catholic where every piece of the Church’s vast history seemed like a newly discovered gemstone that I alone had mined. Every new piece of doctrine seemed like the missing piece, and now I was more complete, whole. None of those feelings were resonating with me. It seemed I had lost touch (temporarily) with my origin. I grudgingly returned to practices I didn’t “feel” like doing, ones I hadn’t thought of in years, in an attempt to reconnect. Slowly I made my way to a new feeling of connection; a path paved with things I knew to be true regardless of the “feeling” involved. In this moment I realized that my faith is not predicated on feelings alone, rather it is rooted in truth and love.

O Clavis of David, O Key of David

“Come and deliver the one from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

A metal instrument by which a bolt is turned is the common definition of the word key. This holds special resonance when I am in a new place, one that I do not really want to be in. There is a situation that I know God has given me, a lesson I now see is intended to unlock a part of me I had no wish to see, much less examine. It is here in the waning darkness that I ask the Messiah, the anointed one, Christ, to thaw my frozen heart, to turn the bolt, for deliverance.

O Oriens, O Rising Dawn

“Come enlighten those who sit in darkness.”

Dawn has a lesser known definition: to begin to appear or develop and to begin to be perceived or understood. The saying “things will seem clearer in the morning,” appears to be rooted here. At the end of a horrible day my one enduring thought surfaces, “I never have to live through this day again.” When I think of my ability to understand our faith and God’s love, I often feel as though I am peeling away the unending layers of an onion. The adage of not being able to stand in the same river twice applies here. We are always changing, growing, even if we go two steps forward and one step back. As a result, we are always peeling away the layers to get to, as Matthew Kelly speaks of, the best version of ourselves. We seek the light.

O Rex Gentium, O King of the Nations

“Come and save poor man, whom you fashion out of clay.”

When my sons were young we lived on a farm whose soil I called “hateful.” There was so much clay in the soil that when wet, it seemed to be slimy, and when dry, it cracked open so much that there were places I could set my entire foot inside. It seemed, like humanity, to have a mind of its own. The boys would often come home so covered in this slime that I would make them strip down to their underwear and wash off with a hose before coming in the house to bathe – otherwise the bathtub would not drain. This picture of childhood serves as a great illustration of my own willfulness. While a water hose no longer suffices, this prayer does.

O Emmanuel

“Come and save us, O Lord our God.”

I cannot remember when I first heard the somber refrain of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I do remember where; in the living room of a small house on Ash Street, the street where I grew up. My mother played stacks and stacks of Christmas recordings on her “hi-fi.” They were wonderful, scratchy teachers. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” was one such lesson brought to us by volume two of Firestone Presents, a series of Christmas recordings. The tone of the music, its minor key sound covering me like a blanket, was something my soul seemed to need, to recognize, and it was here that they were imprinted in me. It was here that my gratitude for salvation was born. It is these prayers that help that gratitude grow.

May your Advent and these antiphons lead you into the light of the star, the warmth of the stable, and the miracle of love.

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