Those of you who have been regular readers of the Dating God blog since its launch in 2010 will recall that every Advent, during the final week before Christmas, I offer daily reflections on the seven O Antiphons, which correspond with the seven days before Christmas Eve (December 17 – 23). Probably best known for forming the seven verses of the popular Advent song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Veni, Veni Emmanuel). These lines — “O Wisdom,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Lord,” “O Key of David,” and so on — did not arise from some lyricist’s imagination, but rather come from the universal prayer of the catholic church: The Liturgy of the Hours.
Every evening women and men around the world pray evening prayer also known as “vespers.” This is definitely prayed by women and men religious as well as diocesan priests and deacons, but it is the universal daily prayer of the church and can (and, should, although it has largely fallen off in popularity) be prayed by all the baptized. And every night, as part of the prayer that consists of psalms, canticles, readings from scripture, intercessions, and other prayers, we pray what’s called the “Magnificat.” This is the canticle that is proclaimed by Mary when she visits her cousin Elizabeth after conceiving the Word. It begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…” Before, and usually after, reciting or singing the Magnificat there is an “antiphon” that is recited. This antiphon varies in its composition and origin, often coming from scripture depending on the liturgical season or from some excerpt of the Magnificat itself.
Beginning on December 17th a special antiphon is proclaimed each evening and, as the name “O Antiphons” suggest, each antiphon begins with an “O-phrase” based on passages from the Hebrew Scriptures that denote names for Christ: Wisdom, Key of David, Dayspring, Root of Jesse, and so on.
I absolutely love the O Antiphons. There’s something about this ancient tradition, which has been traced back to as early as the fourth century, but likely had originated earlier. There is something that I really like about the return to our Jewish roots as Christians, recognizing that the very names for God and the coming of the Messiah as anticipated by Jesus’s own faith community and people are the same names we ascribe to Christ who comes as emmanuel — God-with-us.
But it is not just an retrospective or anachronistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures to cull names for Christ that is going on in the celebration of these O Antiphons. The prophetic texts upon which these are based, largely from Isaiah, continue to speak to us today. It is the source of the O Antiphons that I enjoy returning to each Advent during the last days, the final countdown to Christmas.
So, I look forward to returning to this tradition for the third time as I had in 2010 and 2011. I’m already reflecting on what these antiphons might be saying to us in 2012. I hope you have a wonderful weekend and continue to celebrate this Season of Advent, I’ll see you on Monday for the first antiphon: O Sapientia, O wisdom.