O Those Antiphons

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By K.E Keating

Sometime during this Advent you will probably hear the Advent carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. This tune is French, from the 15th century. The chant the words are based on is over 1,000 years old.

You may notice that each verse begins with the word “O” and then calls on Jesus as the Messiah using a title from the Old Testament, mostly from the prophet Isaiah. These are called the “O Antiphons”. An antiphon is a short chant repeated with a psalm or reading; sort of like the chorus of a song that is sung between verses. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is usually sung later in Advent; that’s because the “O Antiphons” come at the end of Advent.

As far back as the 8th century monks would chant the “O Antiphons” during the last week before Christmas. The “O Antiphons” begin on December 17th and continue through December 23rd during Vespers. Vespers is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, a way of praying where special prayers are said at certain times of the day. Vespers (or Evening Prayer) is said at sunset.

The “O Antiphons” are said before and after the Magnificat, Mary’s canticle of praise to God that she said when she visited Elizabeth. A canticle is a hymn of praise. The Magnificat is always said at Vespers.

The titles used for Jesus are: O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel. The order in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a little different, and places “O Emmanuel” first, but all express a deep longing for Jesus to hasten and come. Some of these form the basis for decorations for a Jesse Tree, which shows the family tree of Jesus. As it too comes from scripture, its use is also very old and can be found in stained glass windows in churches, and in illuminated manuscripts, which are prayer books from Medieval times with painted pictures. Some people set up a Jesse Tree along with their Advent wreath.

In a way, the “O Antiphons” sum up the history of salvation, starting with O Wisdom as the Word of God, present at Creation and still keeping things in order. O Lord of Israel references Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. O Root of Jesse recalls Jesus’ heritage and his ancestors, like Ruth, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. O Key of David is the Messiah from the line of David and a King in His own right. O Dayspring brings light to the world. O King of the Nations is the Prince of Peace, and O Emmanuel is “God with us” even unto the end of the world.

The Liturgy of the Hours is still prayed by priests, some religious congregations, and many everyday people. Many parishes hold Vesper Services during Advent. Know that when you are singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, you are praying the “O Antiphons”.

© 2021 K.E. Keating

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