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Rejoice, the Lord is Near! Gaudete Sunday, Ember Days and O Antiphons

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Dec 16, 2014

See my post from 2013, O Come!! The O Antiphons for further reflection on the O Antiphons.

The Advent liturgy is so rich, varied and beautiful. Every time the liturgical cycle repeats, it is another opportunity to enter more deeply into the Church's liturgy as She prepares for Christmas. This past Sunday was the Third Sunday of Advent. The rose-colored vestments are a signal for the transition into the second part of Advent, which is provides more intense preparation for the remaining days of Advent. Besides Gaudete Sunday, the Advent Ember Days and O Antiphons are the special treasures of the second phase of the Advent liturgy.

Gaudete Sunday

The Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday because of the first word "Rejoice" in the Introit or entrance antiphon of Sunday's Liturgy. "Rejoice" is also repeated throughout the readings and prayers. The vestments worn by the priest can be the color rose (sometimes referred to as pink). The third candle of the Advent wreath is also rose. Both are reminders that Christ's coming is very soon; we are nearing the end of Advent, and we can hardly contain our joy.

This Sunday always reminds me of Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter and her GLAD Game (emphasis mine):

There was no reply this time, though Pollyanna waited patiently, before she tried again—by a new route.

"Do You like being a minister?"

The Rev. Paul Ford looked up now, very quickly.

"Do I like—Why, what an odd question! Why do you ask that, my dear?"

"Nothing—only the way you looked. It made me think of my father. He used to look like that—sometimes."

"Did he?" The minister's voice was polite, but his eyes had gone back to the dried leaf on the ground.

"Yes, and I used to ask him just as I did you if he was glad he was a minister."

The man under the tree smiled a little sadly.

"Well—what did he say?"

"Oh, he always said he was, of course, but 'most always he said, too, that he wouldn't STAY a minister a minute if 'twasn't for the rejoicing texts."

"The—WHAT?" The Rev. Paul Ford's eyes left the leaf and gazed wonderingly into Pollyanna's merry little face.

"Well, that's what father used to call 'em," she laughed. "Of course the Bible didn't name 'em that. But it's all those that begin 'Be glad in the Lord,' or 'Rejoice greatly,' or 'Shout for joy,' and all that, you know—such a lot of 'em. Once, when father felt specially bad, he counted 'em. There were eight hundred of 'em."

"Eight hundred!"

"Yes—that told you to rejoice and be glad, you know; that's why father named 'em the 'rejoicing texts.'"

"Oh!" There was an odd look on the minister's face. His eyes had fallen to the words on the top paper in his hands—"But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" "And so your father—liked those 'rejoicing texts,'" he murmured.

"Oh, yes," nodded Pollyanna, emphatically. "He said he felt better right away, that first day he thought to count 'em. He said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it—SOME. And father felt ashamed that he hadn't done it more. After that, they got to be such a comfort to him, you know, when things went wrong; when the Ladies' Aiders got to fight—I mean, when they DIDN'T AGREE about something," corrected Pollyanna, hastily. "Why, it was those texts, too, father said, that made HIM think of the game—he began with ME on the crutches—but he said 'twas the rejoicing texts that started him on it."

"And what game might that be?" asked the minister.

"About finding something in everything to be glad about, you know. As I said, he began with me on the crutches." And once more Pollyanna told her story—this time to a man who listened with tender eyes and understanding ears.

The liturgy of the third Sunday of Advent is full of the "rejoicing texts." (Although Pollyanna mentions 800 texts, she was Protestant, so I wonder if the Catholic Bible has even more verses?) All ages can read from the day's liturgy to count the times of rejoicing; it can become a little detective game. The liturgy reflects the interior joy we should have at all times. Rev. Edward Sutfin in his True Christmas Spirit shares a beautiful description of this day:

This Sunday introduces us into the second half of the season of Advent, and at the opening of Matins our anxiety and joy are given impetus: "The Lord is already near. Come, let us adore Him!" (Invitatory) The entire week is one of the richest of the entire year of grace, for during this week fall the magnificent Ember Days and the beginning of the "O antiphons." All of us are children this Sunday, for we are unable to restrain our impatience at the coming of the Saviour. Our joy urges us to celebrate in the great basilica of St. Peter, so that all mankind may share it with us. The penitential violet of Advent is changed to rose, and at the Gospel even the Precursor announces to the city that "He is in our midst." Christ the Lord is even today present through grace, as He will be with us forever in glory.

Perhaps the first half of Advent has been full of outside commitments and distractions. It has been for me. I celebrated my one-year anniversary of my open heart surgery on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but recently experienced some setbacks which required a road trip to Cleveland Clinic last week to meet with the cardiologist again. I have also been preoccupied by Christmas shopping. While cyber-shopping from the comfort of my home is physically easier, deadlines loom much earlier. The first two weeks of Advent are also filled with glorious feast days, marked with traditions and family activities. While they can be spiritually uplifting, I find the festivities can also be draining and distracting at times. The rose-colored vestments can be an alert to slow down, to turn interiorly to renew again our commitment to prepare for His coming. Beginning with December 17 there are only two optional memorials on the calendar. The Advent liturgy takes precedence over any other feasts and marked with an intense spirit of preparation. He is coming and is very near! Now is the time for the last minute finishing touches on our souls before His arrival!

Advent Ember Days

Very soon after Gaudete Sunday the Advent Ember Days begin. While the US calendar does not reflect the Ember Days, earlier in September I explained what are the Ember Days and how to personally observe them even in the Ordinary Form of the Liturgy.

Traditionally St. Lucia's feast day on December 13 is the signal for the Ember Days to fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following her feast day, but this means the Advent Ember Days always fall during the 3rd week of Advent. There are four major themes of the Quarterly Ember Days, but each set adjusts according to the corresponding liturgical season:

  1. Thanksgiving for the Harvest Expressed Through Almsgiving. Traditionally the Advent Ember Days marked thanksgiving for the olive harvest. Olive oil is used for the Holy Oils in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick, and also for special consecrations and blessings, such as for a new church or altar stone. The thanksgiving emphasis was expressed on Ember Wednesday, with offering of first fruits and distribution of blessed food baskets for the needy.
  2. Days of Spiritual Renewal. Holy Mother Church provides us so many opportunities to redirect, refresh and renew. Even though the Advent season lasts over 20 days, our human frailty needs reminders to resolve to start anew. These three days are opportunities to add extra prayer and penance for ourselves and others.
  3. Praying for Priests. The Church no longer regularly ordains priests during the times of the Quarterly Ember Days, but this is a special time, particularly Ember Saturday, to pray for priests, particularly the ones who are about to be ordained within the year.
  4. Reflecting the Spirit of the Season. Each set of Ember Days reflect the season of the Liturgical Year in which they occur. The Advent Ember Days fall near the end of Advent, and the traditional liturgy summarizes the weeks of longing for the Messiah. The Masses include the Messianic prophecies regarding Christ's Birth and Epiphany in order to prepare for Christmas. The 1962 liturgy had Ember Wednesday's Gospel focused on the Incarnation, Ember Friday presented St. Elizabeth and the Visitation of Mary, and Ember Saturday featured St. John the Baptist.

Of particular note is the ancient liturgy of Missa Aurea or "Golden Mass" on Ember Wednesday. On this day the Church celebrated the "golden mystery" of our Faith, the moment the Word became flesh, the Incarnation of Christ in Mary's womb. In the Ordinary Form Missal, the Golden Mass is not lost but celebrated in the liturgy on December 20, the O Antiphon day "O Key of David."

The Great "O" Antiphons

Not everyone will observe Ember Days, but the "O" Antiphons are the final gift of the liturgy in preparing for Christmas. I detailed last year how the O Antiphons are special jewels of the liturgy preserved from the 4th century in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the liturgy.

Throughout the rest of Advent the liturgy has expressed the longing for the Messiah but small bits and pieces. All through Advent the word "come" is repeated throughout the Introit and Communion antiphons. From December 17 to December 23 we have seven antiphons that intensely express the 4,000 long years of awaiting for the Messiah. The antiphons express the impatience for Christ to come. They travel through the history of redemption announcing "Jesus...as our Teacher, our Redeemer, our Liberator, our Guide, our Enlightener and our Saviour" (The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, trans. Ryan and Ripperger, 1941). During these days, the liturgy of the Mass contrasts the greatest Messianic prophecies and types of Christ from the Old Testament with the Gospels unfolding the more immediate preparation of the birth of Christ through the Annunciation, the Visitation, the birth of John the Baptist, and the espousals of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The antiphons themselves are part of the Vespers or Evening Prayer of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. These antiphons are repeated before and after the Magnificat. The liturgy of the Mass hints at the O Antiphons, including excerpts at the Alleluia verse and other antiphons, but the actual O Antiphons are found only in the Divine Office. (There are several versions of English translations since they were originally in Latin, and the hymn O Come, Emmanuel contains all the O Antiphons.)

December 17: O Wisdom (O Sapientia)
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.

December 18: O Lord and Ruler (O Adonai)
O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

December 19: O Root of Jesse (O Radix Jesse)
O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

December 20: O Key of David (O Clavis David)
O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

December 21: O Radiant Dawn (O Oriens)
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 22: O King of the Nations (O Rex Gentium)
O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

December 23: O Emmanuel
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

The internet is abuzz with ideas for crafts and activities to attempt to make the O Antiphons accessible to children. I myself have tried preparing foods and visual aids, but the essence of the O Antiphons is that they are a gift of the Liturgy and the Word of God and beg for quiet contemplation. The O Antiphon Days or "Golden Nights" fall at the latter half of Advent, the time that points to the interior preparation and meditation that we should be trying to bring to our spiritual lives.

Presenting the O Antiphons to any age reminds me of the approach in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with the Messianic Prophecies. No Old Testament emphasis is given in Level I, which is ages three to six years old, except a few Messianic prophecies in Advent. In the next level, ages six to nine, these prophecies are repeated and a few more added. By Level 3, Biblical typology and covenant theology is unfolded, but the Messianic prophecies are repeated in their utter simplicity. In all three levels these prophecies are given only as gifts from the Word of God with no extra figures or manipulatives. The children read them, find the passages in the Bible, copy them and pray them. They entrust them to their heart and ponder the words.

This the secret of the O Antiphons. At first glance they are confusing, using old pictorial language that isn't readily understood by children and adults alike. But instead of unpacking them all at once, the antiphons are gifts to slowly unpack and contemplate. We can be like Mary, pondering these words in our hearts, perhaps looking up the Scriptural passages upon which the antiphons are based. Just singing the haunting melody of O Come Emmanuel captures the longing and impatience for the Messiah. We can ask the Holy Spirit help us find the deeper meaning of the beautiful longing and how it applies to us as we prepare for the Light of the World to come. 

The other gift of the O Antiphons is that praying them together as a family gives a little taste of praying the Divine Office together. We are exposing our family to the universal prayer of the Church. We are united with our brothers and sisters in Christ on earth, but in praying these ancient antiphons unites us with the entire Mystical Body, from before Christ to the present.

The closer we approach Christmas, the more the liturgy expresses urgency and intensity especially through Gaudete Sunday, the Ember Days and the O Antiphons. We need to observe this time of final preparation for the coming of Christ with more interior contemplation and preparation and realize how we are not alone traveling this journey, but together with the whole Body of Christ throughout all time. May we pray for one another during these Golden Nights so that we may more worthily kneel at Christ's manger. O Come Lord Jesus, do not delay!

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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