Originally published: December 17, 2012
I think I’m finally getting Advent right this year.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll attest to the fact that the two seasons of the Church calendar I love the most are Lent (and the Triduum) and Advent. I love these two seasons, not only because I love the particular treatment of them by the Church, or because I believe some of the better sacred music is tied to them, but because they provide us with a real and significant period of time in which to consider the gravity and magnitude of the events up to which they are leading and for which we should be preparing ourselves and because we, as the Church, have been marking these periods of time, in one way or another, since the moment Christ was no longer with us on earth and we began looking toward and longing for the day when He will return to us.
December 17th marks the beginning of the O Antiphons of Advent. For most people, the only contact they have with these particular antiphons is the carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and while it’s a pretty song and it covers the gist of the antiphons, I think it’s important that we as Catholics, as Christians, have a working knowledge of these antiphons.
The USCCB website provides a nice description of the O Antiphons:
The Roman Church has been singing the “O” Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative “Come!” embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.
According to Fr. William Saunders in his article, “What Are the ‘O Antiphons’?”:
“The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. Let’s now look at each antiphon with just a sample of Isaiah’s related prophecies:
December 17: O Sapientia: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” (11:2-3), and “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom.” (28:29).
December 18: O Adonai: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” (11:4-5); and “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us.” (33:22).
December 19: O Radix Jesse: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (11:1), and on that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” (11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:1).
December 20: O Clavis David: “O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.” Isaiah had prophesied, I will place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open.” (22:22), and “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over His kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” (9:6).
December 21: O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” (9:1).
December 22: O Rex Gentium: “O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.” Isaiah had prophesied, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (9:5), and “He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” (2:4).
December 23: O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel’.”
According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
I have always loved the O Antiphons. They are beautiful, they are a magnificent theology (lesson), and, to some degree, they are mournful as they recall the darkness in which mankind was shrouded prior to the arrival of Christ. It’s the comparison to that darkness in which man lived that makes the contrasting light of Christ’s arrival an even more awesome and joyous event. The antiphons remind us of our roots as a people of faith and they give us the hope and joy of the coming of Christ.
By the end of the antiphons, we are told to “REJOICE! REJOICE!” For the last week or so, I have had the Christmas carol, Gaudete stuck in my head. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not happening to too many other people. If you’re not familiar with the carol, I highly recommend you have a listen here, as it is sung by the group, Mediæval Bæbes.
Gaudete (“rejoice” in Latin) is a sacred Christmas carol, thought to be from the 16th century, but might be even older. (*Interesting piece of Christmas music trivia: the first specifically Christmas hymns for Christians that we know of appear in fourth century Rome.)
The particular line I’ve had stuck is the refrain, “Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!”
The full text of this carol is:
|Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
|Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
(Out) Of the Virgin Mary — rejoice!
|Tempus adest gratiæ
Hoc quod optabamus,
|The time of grace has come—
what we have wished for,
songs of joy
Let us give back faithfully.
|Deus homo factus est
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.
|God has become man,
To the wonderment of Nature,
The world has been renewed
By the reigning Christ.
Unde lux est orta
|The closed gate of Ezekiel
Is passed through,
Whence the light is born,
Salvation is found.
|Ergo nostra contio
Psallat iam in lustro;
Salus Regi nostro.
|Therefore let our gathering
Now sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord:
Greeting to our King.
I’m thankful for two things regarding this seasonal earworm, 1. That the song stuck in my head is more respectable than, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and 2. That the line I have stuck is the one that repeats the idea of “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!”
From the moment our first parents ate that forbidden fruit, mankind longed for the arrival of the savior of the world. Not only did He come, but He came and established Holy Mother Church so that each of us might find the means for the eternal salvation of our souls! If there is any better reason for us to rejoice, I can’t bring it to mind.
So, for me, between the O Antiphons and Gaudete, I have been duly reminded of the importance of this season of Advent. I have been reminded that I, a poor, wretched sinner, must make ready my mind, body, and soul before I can truly open my door to the Christ child. I have been reminded that I need to make use of this time–this quiet, reflective, preparatory time, to make ready anything that is unbefitting the arrival of the Lord.
I recently heard someone say that if you’re tired of Christmas by December 24th, then you’re doing Advent wrong.
I think I’m finally getting Advent right this year.