St. Anne came to my wife in a dream once. The grandmother of Jesus gently touched my wife’s abdomen, and told her that she was having a girl—weeks before our doctor could tell us the same.
Seven years later my daughter’s middle name, “Anna-Maria,” has great significance for me as a theologian. The hyphen, which unites Anne and Mary, recalls to mind the intimate union of the Old and New Testaments, the prophecies of Israel and the proclamations of the Church. Through these two Jewish women in the line of David—one whose Hebrew name means “grace,” and one who is “full of grace”—comes grace upon grace.
Advent is like this too. It is a grace that prepares us for grace. It is a “prevenient” movement within the life of the Church through which God prepares us to receive what we cannot receive by ourselves. At the heart of Advent is Mary’s Song, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” And the last seven days of Advent resound not only with the prophecies of old, but with the mysteries of eternity. I am speaking, of course, of the great O Antiphons, which “ring in” the final days of Advent.
It was likely in Milan, under St. Ambrose, that Latin Christianity developed the Byzantine manner of singing the psalms “antiphonally.” Whenever possible, two choirs would alternately chant the verses of the psalm—a practice that so thoroughly penetrated the West that medieval chantbooks for the Mass were known as “Antiphonaries.” Indeed, the music of the Church’s Offices retains the title Antiphonale Sacrosanctae Romanae Ecclesiae pro diurnis horis (Antiphonary of the Holy Roman Church for the Hours of the Day). Whether sung antiphonally or not, however, any ritual chanting of psalms became known as “antiphons.”
One common way of classifying antiphons was according to their opening lines—thus we speak of the antiphons that prepare us for the Feast of the Nativity as the O Antiphons, since each of Isaiah’s seven prophetic names for Christ begins with an invocational “O.” These antiphons were probably first arranged by Benedictine monks 1,500 years ago, and they were certainly in regular use by the time of Charlemagne in the 8th century. Despite many trials and tribulations, Christians still recite or chant them immediately prior to the Magnificat Canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They prepare us for the great Vigil of Christmas, uniting Israel’s hopes and the desire of nations as a kind of prophetic summa in praise of divine providence. In the heart of winter’s darkness, the O Antiphons call us to worship Jesus Christ as the center of salvation history.
December 17: O Sapientia
O WISDOM, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: COME, and teach us the way of prudence.
Christ is addressed as the Sapientia by whom God created the world. “All creation groans with longing,” as St. Paul tells us in Romans. The eternal principles that subsist in God’s own mind are indeed revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This antiphon calls us to contemplate Wisdom revealed in the intimate confines of his creche—to behold the ordering principle of the whole cosmos in swaddling clothes. (See Isaiah 28:29.)
December 18: O Adonai
O LORD AND RULER of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: COME, and redeem us with outstretched arms.
The early church fathers consistently read the burning bush as a figure of the Incarnation. St. Cyril of Alexandria spoke of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures using the analogy of iron and fire: Christ’s human nature was plunged into the divine fire in such a way that the properties of divinity were communicated to humanity without God ceasing to be what he was. The ineffable hypostatic union does not change the divine nature, but by uniting flesh to himself in a new way, the Lord heals human nature for all those united to Christ. Just as the divine fire consumes but does not destroy the sacred wood of Christ’s humanity, so may our humanity be set ablaze through union with sanctifying grace itself. Moses asked for the divine name—O Adonai—but Jesus Christ presses it upon our hearts.
December 19: O Radix Jesse
O ROOT OF JESSE, which stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: COME, to deliver us, and tarry not.
Isaiah prophesied that Israel’s Redeemer would come from Jesse’s line—radix is the stem of our word “radical,” and this is indeed a radical hope. Jesse, the father of David, was a shepherd before his son became king. It’s from Jesse’s root that Isaiah prophesies that a branch shall grow, and “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” Who is this branch upon whom God’s Spirit rests? Who is this “root of Jesse” who will become both the lamb of Israel and the Good Shepherd before whom the kings of the earth will fall silent? (See Isaiah 11:1-10.)
December 20: O Clavis David
O KEY OF DAVID, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: COME, and bring forth the captive from his prison, he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.
God anointed David, and said that his line would endure forever, and that his throne would be like the sun. How is that possible? God’s promises to David are certainly not fulfilled by Solomon. Great though the earthly Jerusalem was and is, it points to the kingdom of the heavenly Jerusalem. The key to the heavenly Jerusalem is Christ, “O Key of David,” and key to all the prophecies. The ancient prophecy is that a king will come from David’s line who can set us free from all our enemies, even death itself. (See Isaiah 22:22.)
December 21: O Oriens
O DAWN OF THE EAST, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Justice: COME, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
The prophecies tell us to look to a rising star in the East. The star of Bethlehem was not some astronomical coincidence. Yet Bethlehem’s star is itself only a sign, a lesser light that points the way to the greater light. We will see a star rising in the East, and at that point we will see One who sits upon a throne like the sun. The Messiah will come in an unexpected way. In order that man might see “the brightness of light eternal” and live, the very source and cause of illumination has entered the economy of the flesh. (See Isaiah 60:18-20.)
December 22: O Rex Gentium
O KING OF THE GENTILES and their desired One, the Cornerstone that makes both one: COME, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.
This second to last of the great O Antiphons will be familiar to all through Charles Wesley’s famous hymn “Come, Desire of Nations, Come.” Christ is not only Israel’s Messiah, but is King of all peoples and nations. The unity of the nations depends not on new forms of global cooperation, but on Jesus Christ. He is the Cornerstone, and the union of humanity and divinity is to be found only in union with Christ. He is the cause of the unity of all peoples and nations.
December 23: O Emmanuel
O EMMANUEL, God with us, Our King and Lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Saviour: COME to save us, O Lord our God.
It is from this last of the O Antiphons that we get our English hymn “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” It was translated from “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” in 1861 by John Mason Neale. When you sing that hymn, you are really tapping into the O Antiphons. The first verse speaks of Emmanuel coming to “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here,” but then the verses work backward through several of the antiphons (a stanza on the root of Jesse, on O Oriens, on David’s Key, and O Adonai). What the modern hymn retains, however, is the sense that the best apologetic is the prophecies of Israel.
The O Antiphons re-orient us to Christ as the center of salvation history. If we face the Lord through them, these ancient prayers are a grace that prepares us to receive grace itself in the humble manger of our souls.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
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