Christmas is approaching quickly! And because this is such a busy time of year for many people, it’s easy to miss that thoughtful and excited sense of anticipation that the Advent season calls us into. If you’re finding this month to be racing by, or you’re struggling to keep hold of “the reason for the season,” the Church may have a solution for you.
For about a week, leading up to Christmas Day, there is a traditional set of antiphons that meditate upon different aspects of the Christ. “Antiphon” is Greek for “opposing sound,” referring to responsive prayers in worship (usually verse-by-verse through a Psalm). An antiphon, specifically, is a verse that is said before and after a Psalm or other canticle, or sometimes at intervals within a Psalm as well.
According to the English version of this venerable tradition, starting tonight (December 16th) is a series of what are nicked the O Antiphons, because they all begin with the word “O.” Together, they make up the basis for the well-known hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
December 16th O Wisdom : which came out of the mouth of the Most High, and reaches from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
December 17th O Adonai : and Leader of the house of Israel, who appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law in Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
December 18th O Root of Jesse : who stands for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, unto whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
December 19th O Key of David : and Scepter of the house of Israel; that opens and no man closes, and closes and no man opens: Come and bring the prisoners out of the prison-house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
December 20th O Day-spring : Brightness of the Light everlasting, and Sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
December 21st O King of Nations : and their Desire; the Cornerstone, who makes both one: Come and save mankind, whom you formed of clay.
December 22nd O Emmanuel : our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
December 23rd O Virgin of virgins : how shall this be? For neither before you was any seen like you, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.
The first seven of these draw from Old Testament prophecies of Jesus; the last one takes a different turn and speaks into the story of the Nativity, so to speak, as we dialogue with Mary about the wonder that God has done through her.
If you want to use these antiphons in their originally-intended context, they are part of the Church’s Evening Prayers, said at the beginning and end of the Magnificat (Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55). Throughout the four Sundays in Advent, we have also been singing them two at a time at Grace Anglican Church. But if you feel too rushed and busy to join in the full discipline of Evening Prayer, simply taking some time to meditate on these antiphons make for a lovely Advent devotion, reconnecting us with not only “the reason for the season,” but also “the season for the reason“!