We enter the second and final part of the season of Advent, the week leading up to Christmas. The liturgy changes significantly and is now focused completely on the Messiah, on the prophecies about him in the Old Testament, and on the accounts of his conception and birth in the New Testament.
From tomorrow, 17 December, until 23 December, the Church sings the seven great O Antiphons, ancient chants that address the coming Messiah as Wisdom, Mighty One, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun, King of the Nations, and God With Us. These antiphons are used at Evening Prayer over the next week, a crescendo of expectation and prayer that culminates in the great joy of Christmas.
What follows here was written by Fr Columba Ryan OP (1916-2009) and published by him in the newsletter of St Dominic's, London, in Advent 1997. I have edited it slightly and added a few phrases.
On 17th to 23rd December certain very ancient Antiphons are used in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies. Nobody knows who wrote them, but they were already in use in the 8th century. So they have been on the lips of Christians for at least twelve hundred years. They have been adapted to form the verses of the popular Advent hymn 'O come, O come Emmanuel'.
An 'antiphon' simply meant something sung alternately between two choirs, and in our Western liturgy, the word often referred to the sentences that were repeated before the Psalms and Canticle to bring out the spirit of the season. These Greater Antiphons, also known as the O Antiphons, come before and after the Magnificat canticle at Evening Prayer. They describe the one we are expecting and bring out the longing with which we should be filled in the last days of Advent.
Let us take them one by one.
17 December O Wisdom [Sapientia], you come from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of Truth.
Each antiphon begins by calling on the expected Messiah under an Old Testament title - in this antiphon the mysterious Wisdom personified in the Book of Wisdom chapters 6-9. Each antiphon then develops that title, in this case using Wisdom 8:1, 'Wisdom deploys her strength from one end of the earth to the other ordering all things for good'. And each antiphon ends with an invitation, increasingly urgent as the week goes on, to come and fulfil the promise of that particular Messianic title, here 'O come to teach us the way of truth'.
18 December O Adonai and leader of Israel, you apppeared to Moses in a burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai. O come and save us with your mighty power.
'Adonai', a curious word coined in the Hebrew Bible, is a kind of rhyming slang to avoid having to utter the unspeakable name of God. This invocation comes from Exodus 6:13 where God spoke to Moses ordering him to lead the people out of Egypt, having appeared to him in the burning bush (Exodus 3), and later given him the law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). The invitation is already more urgent: 'Come, save us with your mighty power'.
19 December O root of Jesse [Radix Jesse], you stand as signal for all the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim. O come to deliver us, and do not delay.
This Messianic title comes from Isaiah 11:10. The root, or stock, of Jesse is David, the son of Jesse. and the abashed silence of enemy kings is referred to there as well as in Isaiah 47:4. The antiphon ends with the appeal, 'come deliver us and do not delay'.
20 December O key of David [Clavis David] and sceptre of Israel, what you open no one can close again; what you close no one can open. O come to lead the captive from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Key of David and Sceptre of Israel are from Apocalypse 3:7, 'the faithful one has the key of David so that when he opens nobody can close', etc. echoing Isaiah 22:22. Now the invitation to come is, as in the next antiphon also, from those who despairingly sit in darkness.
21 December O Rising Sun [Oriens], you are the splendour of light and the sun of justice. O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
The rising sun is another Messianic title, this one from Zechariah 6:12 (in older translations) and once again the invitation refers to darkness and light: come and enlighten us.
22 December O King [Rex] whom all the peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one. O come and save man whom you made from clay.
The title now is from the prophet Haggai 2:8 (once again in older translations). There is a reference also to the key or corner stone, an image from the Old Testament which was of great importance for the first preaching of the resurrection of Jesus: the stone rejected by the builders has become the key or corner stone. And it is out of death that he has risen and become the king of a race made from clay but raised, by his power, for an eternal kingdom.
23 December O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the One whom the peoples await, and their Saviour. O come and save us, Lord, our God.
This is the best known of the Messianic titles. It comes from a familiar passage, Isaiah 7:14, which promises the birth of a child, the continuation of the house of David, a child to be called Emmanuel which means 'God with us'. The series closes with the great prayer come and save us, Lord, our God, which is what the season of Advent is all about.
In the solemn celebrations of Evening Prayer during these days, these Antiphons are sung to special and ancient musical settings. The great bell of the church was rung as they were sung.
A medieval acrostic from the first letter of each title in Latin, and taken in reverse order, made the dog Latin phrase ERO CRAS, meaning 'tomorrow I shall be there'.