Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic Prayer: O Antiphons


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December 17! This day always falls during the third week in Advent, and the children will be very busy that night. That evening the family gathers to put up the Christmas tree and to begin to decorate it, for at the Vesper hour of December 17 the Church surrounds the Canticle of our Blessed Mother with the first of the "O antiphons." These are the final preparation and the most ardent appeal of Holy Mother Church for the coming of her Bridegroom. They serve as the introductory theme and conclusion to Mary's hymn of praise.

Let us begin with the Christmas tree. After the tree has been firmly set up and the lights arranged, the program of the evening begins with the blessing of the tree. The blessing, which may be found inside the cover of the Leaflet Missal for the Christmas Masses, may be led by the parents or by the children. The blessing, even though it is not to be found in the Ritual, has a character very much in accord with the customary form of the blessing of objects. Psalm 95 has been chosen for the blessing because of the verses which are used as antiphon: "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He is come." After this psalm has been antiphonated by the family, one of the children reads a lesson from the prophet Ezechiel:

Thus saith the Lord God: I myself will take the top of the high cedar, and will set it: I will crop off a tender twig from the top of the branches thereof, and I will plant it on a mountain high and eminent. On the high mountains of Israel will I plant it, and it shall become a great cedar: and all birds shall dwell under it, and every fowl shall make its nest under the shadows of the branches thereof. And all the trees of the country shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, and exalted the low tree: and have dried up the green tree, and have caused the dry tree to flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and have done it. (17, 22-24)
After the customary verses and responses, the oration recalls the need for us to be incorporated into the Mystical Body:
Holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God, who hast caused Thy Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to be planted like a tree of life in Thy Church by being born of the most holy Virgin Mary, bless, we beseech Thee, this tree that all who see it may be filled with a holy desire to be ingrafted as living branches into the same Lord Jesus Christ. . . .
Once the tree has been blessed, one of the children may place the Chi-Rho at the top or in the center of the tree in order to symbolize Christ as the Tree of Life into which all must be grafted. After this, the Advent candle in honor of our Blessed Mother is placed before the tree. Light and Life become the theme of the season: Holy Mass is the core and center of our Christmas celebration.

As an evening prayer, it is very appropriate for the family to sing the Magnificat of Our Lady, repeating before and after it on each successive evening the appropriate "O antiphon" as one of the children places upon the Christmas tree an ornament decorated with a symbol of the antiphon. In each of these antiphons, the ardent imploring of the Old Testament and of the pagan world for the Redeemer is manifest; they are the Rorate coeli of humanity. In each of them, there is a progression of thought. In the first antiphon (O Wisdom) we see the Son of God in His eternal life before all creation; in the second, third and fourth (O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David), we see Him in the Old Law; in the fifth (O Orient) we see Him in the natural created world; in the sixth (O King of the Gentiles), we see Him as the Redeemer of the pagan world; and in the seventh and last (O Emmanuel), we see Him as "God with us," the Redeemer who is come, who gives us Light and Life in Holy Mass and the promise of eternal glory at His Second Coming.

After the singing of the Magnificat with its appropriate "O antiphon," the family concludes with the singing of an appropriate Advent song possibly emphasizing the Rorate coeli on the seventeenth, "Behold a Branch Is Growing" on the nineteenth, "Emmanuel" for the twenty-third. Perhaps a single song would be easier for the family, and if so the Veni, Emmanuel from the Westminster Hymnal should be chosen, since its seven verses are arranged in such manner that each verse correlates with one of the great antiphons. On the shortest day of the year, December 21, when darkness lies longest over the land, the children could be told how the Church sings to the Expected One: "O Orient, splendor of eternal light, Sun of Justice: come, and shine with Thy light upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death."

Florence Berger offers a word concerning the culinary "treats" of the "O antiphon" days:

Another old custom which we revived is giving family treats. In the monasteries long years ago, the different monks furnished extra treats on these days before Christ's birthday. The gardener gave the community some of his finest dried or preserved fruits on December 19 when he called on Christ: "O Root of Jesse, come to deliver us and tarry not." The cellarer unlocked the best wine for his treat as he called: "O Key of David, come, and come quickly." Finally, on December 23, the abbot gave his extra gift to the brothers. Expense accounts which are still extant show how generous and extensive a list of foods were used on the abbot's "O Day."

Each one in our family keeps his gift a deep, dark secret until suppertime. We begin with the smallest child. Her treat may be only a graham cracker for dessert. Freddie cracked and picked some black walnuts for us. All pounding didn't give it away because little boys are so often pounding. Ann made some Advent wreath cookies and used up all the cinnamon drops for decoration on the cookies, her face and her fingers. Mary made a big casserole of baked beans and we couldn't quite decide whether she was treating herself or the family. Finally, it was Mother's turn, and then, at last Father's turn to produce something really outstanding. At dessert time Father rose from the table without a word, put on his hat and coat without a smile, and left us sitting at the table with our mouths open in amazement. After five minutes which seemed like hours he stomped back into the house — with a big bowl of snow ice cream. The squeals of delight would have pleased an abbot.

Prayer Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955