In the seven or eight days before Christmas Eve, at an appropriate church service (usually vespers, or evening prayer), the Great Advent Antiphons are traditionally said to introduce the saying (or singing) of the Magnificat. These prayers are variously known as the Great Advent Antiphons, the Great Os, the O Antiphons, the Solemn Antiphons, or the Oleries. They are familiar to many as the source for the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
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. The O Antiphons are set to the tune of an ancient French processional hymn and liturgically speaking we should only sing this song between 17th and 23rd December, but it is a firm favourite of many people!
The O-Antiphons have been described as being amongst the most magnificent and ancient compositions of the Roman liturgy - "a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God". They "create a poetry that fills the liturgy with its splendour", and their composer shows "a magnificent command of the Bible's wealth of motifs". The antiphons are, in fact, a collage of Old Testament types of Christ. Their predominant theme is messianic, stressing the hope of the Saviour's coming. Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah. The sequence progresses historically, from the beginning, before creation, to the very gates of Bethlehem. For the seven days before Christmas, we recall in these prayers a quality of Christ that must be realized before the presence of Christ can consume the world. Since the Second Vatican Council, they have also been adapted (slightly reworded and rearranged) for the "Alleluia Verse" of the Mass of the day (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.
As we enter into the final octave of Advent, perhaps this may be an opportunity to sit with Mary for a few moments each day to contemplate the celebration that is to come. To sit with Mary and reflect on these ancient prayers of longing which still echo for us today.
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.......
Further reading and reflection on the Great O's:
- Praising the Names of Jesus: The Antiphons of Advent by Jeanne Kun
- The O Antiphons - iBenedictines
- Chantblog - The Great O Antiphons
- Vultus Christi- Dom Mark Kirby from Silverstream Priory in Stanmullen in Co Meath has a series of homilies on the O Antiphons
- Blue Eyed Ennis - from Phil Ewing's old blog, a set of links and posts for the O'Antiphons
- Vatican Radio - in 2012, Vatican Radio did a short reflection on the O Antiphons
- Reflections on the O Antiphons from Liturgy NZ website
- Wellspring daily reflections on the O Antiphons
- For those looking to do a lectio divina on the O Antiphons the chart at Catholic Resources provides a comparative overview of the Latin versions and English translations of the texts used in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Lectionary for Mass, as well as the lyrics from the Advent hymn and some references to a few scriptural passages upon which these texts were based.