Oh wonderful! Christmas is coming and the waiting is the best part. At least, I always thought so.
These days, folks know Halloween is on the way when the Christmas displays go up and the holiday ads ramp up. Once the waiting meant penance, and it began forty days before the feast, putting it in mid-November. I’m not a fan of forty days of fasting, particularly by harsh medieval rules (no meat, no sex, short rations), but we’ve lost the season of anticipation in the sea of celebration. We lost some beautiful music with it, among it the O! Antiphons.
As a writer of historical stories, I have to regret the loss. There is something about the music, the more somber decorations, and the mindset that evoke images of the long procession of generations. The deep darkness of December calls out for light. Our family still begins the season with an Advent wreath but candles in the window follow soon after and then the lit tree. As Christians we anticipate the coming of Christ daily. As Isaiah wrote, “The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light.” The prayers and music remind us and fuel the imagination.
The Divine Office, or “Hours,” the prayer chanted daily by monks for well over a thousand years, still reflects anticipation. The time before Christmas provides specific psalms and prayers related to the coming of Christ. As the feast grew nearer, the prayers grow more hopeful. Anglican and Catholic traditions still include those prayers for those of us that take the time to look.
Beginning on December 17 and continuing for seven days, the Office adds antiphons, short prayers said before and after the nightly chanting of the Magnificat.
These are called the “O” Antiphons because each begins with O [Name] calling on Christ by a different title. The O Antiphons are, in essence, a meditation on and celebration of the prophecies of Isaiah about the promised messiah. Each represents a title for the messiah, who Christians believe to be Christ, as found in Isaiah:
O Sapientia, or Wisdom
O Adonai, the Lord of ancient Israel
O Radix Jesse, or shoot from the root of Jesse, King David’s father and the messiah’s ancestor
O Clavis David, the key of David, the key to the kingdom
O Oriens, the dawn or more poetically “Dayspring”
O Rex Gentium, the king of all nations
O Emmanuel, the name given by Isaiah that means “God With Us.”
Teachers used the O Antiphons to decorate their classrooms during December and explaining each one. Ancient images, evocative of incense, chant, and stone churches,
enchanted me. I came to look forward to them; I still do. They tie us to our past. Growing up in that world may account for the vital role history plays in my imagination. How about you?
To read more about the meaning of the O Antiphons hear them chanted:
For a simpler explanation: