Aside from being authentic expressions of the worship of Christ’s Mystical Body, ancient liturgical traditions are also wonderful correctives to the spirit of the age. Vis-à-vis Christmas, those who celebrate it still are often confused by merchants and entertainers into thinking that the Christmas season is that roughly one-month period from Black Friday till December 25. Advent is just the mystifying old name we give to it.
The truth, on the contrary, is that Advent is a penitential season in anticipation of the great Festival of Christ’s Nativity, and that Christmastide begins on the Vigil of Christmas (with First Vespers on December 24) and ends on February 2, the Feast of the Presentation, also known as “Candlemas.”
As Advent swells to its glorious crescendo, I would like to focus the attention of my readers on seven liturgical masterpieces that, according to the great monastic reformer, Dom Guéranger, contain the “very marrow” of the Advent Liturgy.
There are oodles and gobs of articles written on the O Antiphons both off- and online, so why another one? I think it would be fair for the reader to ask that question, based, as it is, on an obvious fact. Rather than answer it directly, I will say that my particular approach to them may justify the redundancy. If not, I beg the reader’s pardon.
My actual commentaries on the antiphons are a stand-alone article on our site because I did not want to make this Ad Rem too long. So this piece serves as an introduction to the subject.
The O Antiphons are seven short liturgical texts that are used in the Roman Church’s evening office of Vespers from December 17 till December 23. They are called in the liturgy, the Antiphonæ majores, or “Greater Antiphons,” and the days upon which they fall are called the “Greater Ferias.” Their precise placement in the Office of Vespers is that they are sung before and after the Magnficat, Our Lady’s Canticle, which is always sung at Vespers, but whose antiphons change depending on the liturgy of the day — whether that day be a Sunday, a saint’s feast, etc.
The O Antiphons are the vehement outpourings of the heart of the Church begging her Bridegroom, Jesus, to come at Christmas. Dom Guéranger points out that their placement at the Magnificat is most appropriate because Jesus came to us through Mary and through Mary we beg Him to come again.
They were a fixed part of the Roman Liturgy by the eighth century, but their origin goes back further. The Catholic philosopher, Boethius (c. 480-524), made a passing reference to them (it is said), which would put their origin back to the late fifth or early sixth century. Herbert Thurston believes that they were part of the Roman Church’s worship by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (+604). Historically, there are various customs associated with them, many of which are monastic. There are also, in addition to the seven that I am speaking of, a few others of more recent origin — that is, in the high Middle Ages — that were used in certain local churches.
Perhaps this is the place to mention something tangentially related to the O Antiphons inasmuch as it has something to do with Advent and involves the interjection O. I speak of December 18, the minor Marian feast of Our Lady’s Expectation, or as it is known in Spain, “Nuestra Señora de la O.” (On our site, Sister Maria Philomena has reproduced Father James J. Galvin’s poem “Lady of O” with a brief introduction of her own.) If, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says, there is no relationship between the Spanish “Our Lady of the O” and the Roman “O Antiphons,” then the coincidence only goes to show that this rounded interjection expresses a common sentiment of Christendom.
Each O Antiphon follows the same general structure: Beginning with the interjection “O,” the next word is a title of Our Lord drawn from the Old Testament, followed by the attribution of some act(s) or quality(-ies) to the awaited Messias, followed, in turn, by the same identical verb in each case, Veni (meaning, “Come” — in the imperative mood), concluding in fine with a specific petition for what we want Him to do when He does come.
Yes, the much more recent O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, dating perhaps to the eighteenth century, is based upon the O Antiphons.
In order, from December 17 to the 23rd, the O Antiphons are named thus:
- O Sapientia
- O Adonai
- O Radix Jesse
- O Clavis David
- O Oriens
- O Rex Gentium
- O Emmanuel
The first letter of each of the titles of Our Lord is capitalized to illustrate this uplifting fun-fact: Reading backwards (from Emmanuel to Sapientia), these letters form an acrostic, spelling out: Ero Cras. Seven times over seven days, we have urgently begged our Emmanuel, Come! Ero Cras is His gracious reply: “Tomorrow, I will!”
Nobody who looks seriously at these little gems can say that the medieval Catholic Church was “unscriptural.” Whoever the anonymous genius was that composed them did so from a mind and heart that has been seethed in the Scriptures.
During these closing days of the lovely liturgical season of Advent, I invite my readers to savor these sacred texts with me, both as an antidote to the mercantile and secular pseudo-Christmas we see around us and as a way of penetrating into the “very marrow” of the season, thereby growing closer to Our Lord in preparation for our Christmas Communion.
As this is the last my readers will be hearing from me in this venue before the Festival of the Nativity, please accept from me an early but genuine Merry Christmas!