Observing the O Antiphons
December 17 begins the “O” Antiphon Days, my very favorite part of Advent. These are ancient antiphons that all begin with “O” found in the liturgy from December 17-23. They are particularly in the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) before the Magnificat in the Evening Prayer (Vespers). Each “O” uses an ancient biblical title of our Lord.
The Antiphons sum up all the longing for our Savior. They recall the Old Testament waiting for the Messiah, but they also reflect our waiting for His Second Coming at the Parousia. Throughout Advent the readings and prayers have been focused on preparation for Christ’s coming in history and in the future. The “Os” are beautiful antiphons which summarize so many prophecies and typologies in the Old Testament while waiting for the Messiah.
Be Watchful, Stay Awake!
The O Antiphon Days can take us by unawares, as they come with no fanfare nor any commercialization. One needs to be aware of the clues to find references scattered in the Liturgy. Gaudete Sunday heralded us to “Rejoice, the Lord is near!” but it is on December 17 that the whole liturgy shifts. There are only two saint days that are on the General Roman Calendar during this time, and they only celebrated as an optional memorial keeping the Advent readings and vestments. The first part of Advent in the daily missal or Divine Office prayer book has readings and prayers not fixed to certain dates. Advent begins between November 27 through December 3, prayers and readings can vary depending on the length of the season, but the dates of December 17-24 have specific readings and prayers tied to each date.
Even though these Antiphons are mainly found in the Liturgy of the Hours, elements are sprinkled throughout other parts of the Church’s liturgy, such as the Alleluia Antiphon before the Gospel for the Mass of the day. The O Antiphons are most easily recognized in the old Advent chant with the haunting melody, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. All seven verses invoke the Messiah using a different ancient title: Emmanuel, Wisdom, Lord and Ruler, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, and Desire of Nations.
Our Last Efforts in Advent
The O Antiphons are such a gift to us, as they provide another chance to renew our spiritual preparation. We can perhaps look around and see what hasn’t been done by us and our children in preparing for Christmas. The Jesse Tree stands neglected, the Advent calendar doors haven’t been opened properly, the manger is bereft of straws, the daily meditation books haven’t been read faithfully, the house is untidy and everyone is bickering, and some of the Advent wreath candles haven’t even been lit. Perhaps December 17 is a deadline date for shipping packages, but it’s also a type of final boarding call for us to join in the whole Church in preparing our hearts. The “O” Antiphons are the story of the covenant yearning of the Chosen People, condensed in seven small phrases. We can pick up and begin again and end our Advent well-armed with these meditations.
For those around children, you might recognize how the tone of the antiphons echo the childlike impatience for the Messiah to finally arrive. “When will Christmas be here?” “I can’t wait for Christmas!” “Will it just COME already?!” The Israelites waited for thousands of years, and their patience must have worn thin at times. We are still waiting for the Second Coming, and instead of just becoming impatient, we also become forgetful. The O Antiphons remind us how we need to continue without ceasing on our preparing for the coming of Christ. Our prayers should have that begging, “Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay!”
Minimalism: Slowly Unpacking the Mystery
Despite how much I love this part of Advent, I do not go overboard on ways to mark these days. The beauty of these “O days” is their simplicity. The O Antiphons are deep and rich in significance, but they are not something to spoil by unwrapping them all once. Over the years in my own childhood and with my own children they are merely marked by singing the verses for O Come, O Come Emmanuel and providing visual aids of symbols (some very simple). We have expanded at times with foods that echo the symbols of the titles, and give Scripture references that family members can explore on their own. I created a Prayer Companion that stays on the table that the children can peruse, and we sing the special verses and antiphons during our Advent Wreath lighting. Sometimes I have used these O Antiphons as copywork for handwriting practice.
Does this minimalism work? I only have a few clues, but one I observed this week. My 12-year-old son was decorating the Christ candle for the atrium. When I suggested using some symbols, he immediately recalled the O Antiphon images, and incorporated a few in his candle design. The beauty and mystery speaks volumes without active teaching from me.
The O Antiphons capture the expectation and preparation of the Chosen People awaiting the Gift of the Messiah. The 2000 year history of Israel’s longing for the Messiah is encapsulated in seven titles and phrases. While we are approaching the manger on tiptoe this Christmas, let us go with hearts full of admiration of the mystery and awe of the Gift of the Light of the World, and let us continue with the spirit of the O Antiphons to eagerly await His Second Coming.
The following .PDF file is a slightly revised version of the prayer companion we leave on our dinner table:
The next file is a one page handout of the Magnificat and verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel to use as a handout for prayer.
For Further Reading:
- O Come!! The O Antiphons by Jennifer Gregory Miller
- Rejoice the Lord is Near! Gaudete Sunday, Advent Ember Days and O Antiphons by Jennifer Gregory Miller
- The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Advent by Jennifer Gregory Miller
- O Antiphons—December 17 - 24 by Jennifer Gregory Miller
For Activity and Prayer Idea Suggestions:
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
- O Antiphon House
- O Antiphon Tower
- O Antiphon Tree Ornaments by Mary Reed Newland
- O Antiphon Days by Florence Berger
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