16 Dec 2011

O Antiphons

Beginning with the 17th of December, the liturgical tradition marks each day until Christmas Eve with an ancient and mysterious text, one of the so-called O-Antiphons. The O-Antiphons are among the most magnificent and ancient compositions of the Roman liturgy. Dating back to at least the seventh century, they are antiphons for the Magnificat, chanted at Vespers on the days before Christmas Eve. Since the Second Vatican Council, they have also been adapted (slightly reworded and rearranged) for the "Alleluia Verse" of the Mass (the short scriptural text or paraphrase that immediately precedes the Gospel reading).

They are named “O” after their introductory exclamation of longing. The O-Antiphons give voice to the deepest longing of Advent, the coming of the Redeemer. Each daily antiphon takes a different image from the Hebrew Scriptures — Wisdom, Lord of Israel, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dawn, King of Nations, Emmanuel — to plead for the coming of Christ. Together, these antiphons move toward Christ’s birth, celebrated the day after the last of them has been chanted. In the English-speaking world, the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has popularized these O-Antiphons far beyond the confines of the church’s liturgy although being liturgically correct, the song is sung backwards in relation to the order of the O Antiphons.

Like last year, we will be posting the O Antiphons here daily for reflection and use but for some other daily reflections on the O Antiphons have a look at:

The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome.


 
The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah

Sapientia (Wisdom)
Adonai (Holy Lord)
Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
Clavis David (Key of David)
Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star)
Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
Emmanuel (God-with-us)
Over at Digitalnun, the good sisters note that "the antiphons are sung by different members of the community (usually the seniors), and "care" is taken to ensure that certain officials receive antiphons appropriate to their office. Thus, the gardener is thought a good choice for O Radix Jesse, while the cellarer (bursar) is considered a fitting match for O Clavis David.






The O Antiphon Book used at Stanbrook Abbey

A specially grand book is used for the antiphons and the singing of them is accompanied by the ringing of all the church bells. In former times there were pittances in the refectory to mark the day. Thus, the gardener might give the community a few dried plums or raisins; the cellarer might add an extra allowance of wine, and so on. The intention was to mark these days out as days of proximate preparation to Christmas, at once solemn and joyful.

At present, there are seven O antiphons in use. Each addresses Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament. Read backwards, the initials of each title in Latin form the words Cras ero or "Tomorrow I shall be (with you)".

The structure of the seven antiphons we now use is essentially the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: come and show us the way of prudence, come and save us with outstretched arm, and so on, and all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern."



As we head into the last 8 days before Christmas, why not make a few minutes of sacred space in your day to round out your preparations for the Holy and Festive Season of Christmas. The presents, decorations and parties are important to re-connect with family and friends, but lets not forget why we celebrate the holy-day.......

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