'O Antiphons' intensify preparation for Christmas 

"Madonna and Child with Two Angels," Vittore Crivelli, ca. 1481–82, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Open Access

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” - Isaiah 7:14.

By Dr. Joan M. Kelly

Three of the four candles on the Advent wreath have been lit as we reach the final stretch of this holy and penitential season, a time for prayerful preparation for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. 

The word Advent (from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming”) describes the whole mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, God becoming man. The very conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary was an advent, so was His birth, and such will be His Second and Final Coming at the end of time. 

Advent customs
The season of Advent evolved over the centuries and, like many observances in our Church, traces its origins to local customs. In ancient times people tended to precede a time of feasting with a time of fasting. Parts of Europe (roughly today’s France and the Lowlands) had close links with the Eastern Church which celebrated the Nativity on January 6 and called it Epiphany (from the Greek epiphanios meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”). 

The Greek-speaking Church of the East found it natural to use the word Epiphany to describe the appearance of the true God in the flesh. They approached the feast with 40 days of fasting and penance very similar to Lent because the Epiphany, like Easter, had taken on a baptismal theme as well. It commemorated the epiphany of Jesus at His Baptism in the River Jordan. Among these people, Saturdays and Sundays were excluded from fasting, just as they were during Lent. In France, therefore, to maintain forty days of fasting, Advent began on Nov.11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours. Their Advent was known as “St. Martin’s Lent!” 

The season of Advent as we know it now probably had a different origin. By the end of the sixth century, during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), a short preparation of four weeks had evolved in the Roman Church. By the tenth century, Advent replaced Christmas Day as the official start of the Church year. 

The Church in the West in Rome had also begun to focus on the December “Ember Days” that occurred on the Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday after the feast of St. Lucy, Dec. 13. These days, a week before the Nativity on Dec. 25, had a distinct penitential theme. The reason lay in a five-day harvest festival honoring the pagan god of agriculture, Saturnalia. This pagan observance was filled with gift exchanges, feasting and other excesses. 

The Church tried to offset the influence of this popular pagan festival with days of fasting, prayer, and penance in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. 

Alternate chanting
Thus began an ancient tradition of singing the “O Antiphons” during the Liturgy of the Hours and in place of the Alleluia verse at Mass precisely on the same days as the pagan Saturnalian feast, Dec. 17-23. The singing of the O Antiphons is still celebrated today on these dates. Although the author of the O Antiphons is unknown, the composer had a magnificent command of the Bible’s wealth of motifs. 

An antiphon (from the Greek anti, meaning “opposite,” and phone, meaning “voice”) is alternate chanting. An antiphon is a psalm or hymn alternately sung by two choirs. Each O Antiphon combines a laudatory invocation of the expected Messiah with a petition for His coming as Savior. The titles of the O Antiphons are derived from Old Testament prophecies from the Book of Isaiah, each one a title of the Messiah. 

The O Antiphons, with a corresponding scripture reference from Isaiah, are as follows: 

December 17 

Come, O WISDOM, 
of Our God Most High! 
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” - Isaiah 11:2.

December 18
Come, O LORD, 
of Ancient Israel! 
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us” - Isaiah 33:22.

December 19 
Come, O Flower 
“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” - Isaiah 11:10. 

December 20
“I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open” - Isaiah 22:22. 

December 21 
Come, O Radiant DAWN! 
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” - Isaiah 9:2. 

December 22 
“For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” - Isaiah 9:6.

December 23 
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” - Isaiah 7:14.

'Eros Cras'
Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last titles and takes the first letter of each one, Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, and Sapientia, the Latin words Ero Cras are formed, meaning “Tomorrow I Will Come.” 

Jesus Christ, whose coming Christians have prepared for in Advent and whom they have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to them, “Tomorrow I Will Come.” So the O Antiphons not only bring intensity to Advent preparation but bring it to a joyful conclusion. 

If you’re not in the habit of praying the Liturgy of the Hours daily, try to attend Mass on Dec. 17, Gaudete Sunday, and Dec. 18-23.


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