December 17th-23rd: THE GREAT ‘O’ ANTIPHONS
THE COMMENCEMENT OF
THE GREAT ‘O’ ANTIPHONS.
“And it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus; that the whole world should be enrolled. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. And Joseph
also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife who was with child.”
(St. Luke, ii. 1, 3, 4, 5)
These solemn Anthems, which express and represent the ardent desires and wishes of the holy Prophets for the coming of Christ, and which ought to express the desire we have that Christ may be born in us by grace, are begun on 17th of December, until 23rd December; and are said on everyday before and after the Magnificat entire, as on [feasts with ranks] Doubles. They each begin with the exclamation “O”. Each of them ends with a plea for the Messias to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes more urgent.
The clerics in the choir after Vespers utter a loud and protracted “O”, to express the longing of the universe for the coming of the Redeemer. They are referred to as the “O Anthems” because the title of each one begins with the interjection “O”. Each anthem is a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture. They are:
December 17: O Sapientia… (O Wisdom).
December 18: O Adonai… (O Adonai).
December 19: O Radix Jesse… (O Root of Jesse).
December 20: O Clavis David… (O Key of David).
December 21: O Oriens… (O Orient).
December 22: O Rex Gentium… (O King of Nations).
December 23: O Emmanuel… (O Emmanuel).
[Another feature of these anthems is that the first letter of each invocation may be taken from the Latin to form an acrostic in reverse. So in the reverse order, of the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel, provide the Latin words: ERO CRAS. The phrase spells out the response of Christ Himself to the heartfelt prayer of his Church: “Tomorrow I will be there”]
The Church enters to-day on the seven days, which, precede the Vigil of Christmas, and which are known in the Liturgy under the name of the Greater Ferias. The ordinary of the Advent Office becomes more solemn; the Antiphons of the Psalms, both for Lauds and the Hours of the day, are proper, and allude expressly to the great Coming. Every day, at Vespers, is sung a solemn Antiphon, which consists of a fervent prayer to the Messias, whom it addresses by one of the titles given him by the sacred Scriptures.
In the Roman Church, there are seven of these Antiphons [as mentioned above], one for each of the Greater Ferias. They are commonly called the O's of Advent, because they all begin with that interjection. In other Churches, during the Middle Ages, two more were added to these seven; one to our Blessed Lady [in honour of her Expectation of her sacred Delivery on Dec 18th], O Virgo Virginum; and the other to the Angel Gabriel [on Dec 20th], O Gabriel; or to St. Thomas the Apostle, whose feast comes during the Greater Ferias [on Dec 21st]; it began O Thoma Didyme. There were even Churches, where twelve Great Antiphons were sung; that is, besides the nine we have just mentioned, there was O Rex Pacifice to our Lord, O Mundi Domina, to our Lady, and O Hierusalem to the city of the people of God.
The canonical Hour of Vespers has been selected as the most appropriate time for this solemn supplication to our Saviour, because, as the Church sings in one of her hymns, it was in the Evening of the world (vergente mundi vespere) that the Messias came amongst us. These Antiphons are sung at the Magnificat, to show us that the Saviour, whom we expect, is to come to us by Mary. They are sung twice; once before and once after the Canticle, as on Double Feasts, and this to show their great solemnity. In some Churches it was formerly the practice to sing them thrice; that is, before the Canticle, before the Gloria Patri, and after the Sicut erat [As it was…]. Lastly, these admirable Antiphons, which contain the whole pith of the Advent Liturgy, are accompanied by a chant replete with melodious gravity, and by ceremonies of great expressiveness, though, in these latter, there is no uniform practice followed. Let us enter into the spirit of the Church; let us reflect on the great Day which is coming; that thus we may take our share in these the last and most earnest solicitations of the Church imploring her Spouse to come, and to which He at length yields.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Advent, Edition 1870; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
And Thou BETHLEHEM Ephrata, art a little one among the thousands of Juda: out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler
in Israel: and his going forth IS from the beginning, from the days of eternity.
(Prophecy of Micheas, v. 2)