Despite the fact that we live in an era where the Christ Child is banished from the public square or reduced to a miserable competition with Kwaanza candles, red-nosed reindeer, abominable snowmen, the Grinch, and every obscene Santa Claus devised by the twisted minds of Hollywood or Madison Avenue, Christians have reason to hope that Christ can still be found in Christmas. The Catholic Church, in particular, has not lost sight of Christ in this holy season and, in fact, can draw from her astounding spiritual reservoir to produce customs of immense beauty to help us keep our eyes fixed on Christ through oceans of distractions.
One of the gems seldom unearthed from the Church’s treasure chest these days is the tradition of the glorious “O” Antiphons; namely, the series of seven short Latin titles for Jesus derived from sacred scripture which, from time immemorial, have been sung in the Catholic liturgy as antiphons to the Magnificat in Evening Prayer. They are recited as a set of regal titles exclusively during the seven days leading up to the celebration of Christmas.
Never heard of them? Then you are not alone in a Church whose living connection to some of her best traditions and practices is often short-circuited.
Don’t get me wrong, the “O” Antiphons haven’t been lost. Rather, they’ve been obscured or buried under mountains of more current sentimental trends (as in Santa and company). They may also be re-packaged in forms that disguise their ancient origin such that the faithful are not aware of their communion in spirit with their predecessors in more prayerful ages of the Latin Church. Did you know, for example, that the seven verses of the familiar Advent song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, are a modern version of the Antiphons? I didn’t think so.
These magnificent titles of Jesus are perhaps the preeminent Advent ritual of the Christian church. They have been used for more than a millennium as meditations to help people prepare for Christ’s coming, and we are impoverished if we’re not aware of how they unite us to the living spirits of our ancestors who contemplated the riches of Christ before us.
The “O” Antiphons are traditionally recited from December 17th through December 23rd as a magnificent summary of the personality and identity of Christ, Our Savior. Each of them begins with the letter “O”, the Latin word that is the equivalent to our English expression, “Oh!” manifesting in one tiny syllable the deepest longing of the People of Israel for its Savior. For the Church of Christ, they express our belief that in Jesus Christ all Israel’s patient waiting has come to perfect fruition. These “O” Antiphons were set to the most exquisite Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages and to this day make for one of the deepest meditations on the Person of Christ in word and song that the Church possesses.
To me, the “O” Antiphons are like a mini-retreat or a contemplative experience of longing before the feast of Christmas if I take them to heart as aids to prayer. How we need such focused prayer, such spiritual depth and clear-sighted meditation in the season that is the most likely to be hijacked by a hostile and aggressive culture! Our internal spiritual compasses and healthy desires are often derailed from their proper Object of longing in the flurry of pre-Christmas buying and distractions. With the “O” Antiphons, however, the contemplative Church reclines in peace like an admiring Mary sitting at the feet of Christ while the worldly Martha dithers, and reminds us to “choose the better part” of this holy season by keeping our eyes fixed on Him alone.
The seven titles of Christ in the “O” Antiphons are a font of spiritual nourishment for us in the days leading up to His Birth. Let us not miss the opportunity to walk with untold generations of our ancestors along the contemplative pathway the Church provides at the end of Advent so that, when He arrives, we can be like the worshipping angels and shepherds on that first Silent Night to sing the praises of the newborn King of our hearts.
The “O” Antiphons already started two days ago, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t join in for the rest.
December 17th —“O Sapientia” (“O Wisdom”)
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2-3)
December 18th —“O Adonai” (“O Lord and Ruler”)
“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)
December 19th —“O Radix Iesse” (“O Root of Jesse”)
“But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (Is 11:1)
December 20th —“O Clavis David” (“O Key of David”)
“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.” (Is 22:22)
December 21st —“O Oriens” (“O Dayspring”)
“All this is the work of the kindness of our God; he, the Dayspring, shall visit us in his mercy to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” (Lk 1:78)
December 22nd —“O Rex Gentium” (“O King of the Nations”)
“He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples.” (Is 2:4)
December 23rd —“O Emmanuel” (“O Emmanuel”)
“The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall give him the name Immanuel.” (Is 7:14)