Seven little ‘O’s

In just over two weeks time we will join the rest of the United Kingdom and possibly some other neighbourhood nations in preparing to celebrate New Year.

As the moment approaches there will be, in some places a Count-Down’. Seven…Six…Five…Four…Three…Two…One… and then a brief second before everyone erupts with excitement; joy; and doubtless, as in most years, hope.

Perhaps this coming year, more than any other in recent memory, Hope will be a stronger desire than at any other time. Maybe some will be thinking that 2023 can’t be worse than this year!  That probably needs a lot more hope than we might feel!

The Church has its own version of a Countdown.  During the week leading up to Christmas, from December 17th there is an ancient custom of reciting what are known as the Advent Antiphons. They have been known since the 8th century.

They mark the final week of the Advent Season and each begins with O (a note of praise).There are  7 of them:

Wisdom (O Sapientia); Ruler of the House of Israel (O Adonai); Root of Jesse (O Radix Jesse) – referring to our Lord as being of the House of King David and therefore the rightful ruler of God’s people; Key of David (O Clavis David); Rising Dawn (O Oriens) reminding us that the birth of Jesus is the dawn of the new age of the New Testament; King of the Nations (O Rex), foretelling that Jesus is for all people, not just Jews; O Emmanuel—God with us, reminding us that Jesus was born as one of us to save us from within our humanity.

I understand that in Latin the initial letters form an acrostic which when read backwards means Tomorrow I will come.  This captures the mood of expectation which is rightly part of the Advent watch of Christians as we move towards the great celebration of Christmas.

They have their origin in Old Testament Scripture, particularly, from the Prophet Isaiah. They are scriptural sentences which top and tail the reciting of a canticle at Evening prayer, which we know of as The Magnificat the song sung by the Blessed Virgin Mary during her visit to her Cousin Elizabeth – as they share the joyful if rather stupendous news that they are both pregnant with rather unexpected babies – Elizabeth with John the Baptist and  Mary, of course, with Jesus.

Today, they are mostly sung at Evensong in these last days of Advent  but they can also be a springboard for personal prayer as we move towards the renewed celebration of the Christ-child.

The ‘O Antiphons’ are little aids to our thinking and praying during Advent.  It is so easy to lose the power of this season to prepare us for the Christ-Child at Christmas that we need all the help we can get!  As the Festive time approaches we shall become more and more embroiled in all the other preparations.  The Antiphons can help to keep us focussed on what is really important in this pre-Christmas season—which is to prepare us spiritually for Christ to be re-born again in our hearts and lives. 

Here is a version of the prayers.

December 17 “O Sapientia…”
O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence. Amen.

December 18 “O Adonai…”
O Lord and ruler of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come, and redeem us with outstretched arms. Amen.

December 19 “O Radix Jesse…”
O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: come, to deliver us, and tarry not. Amen.

December 20 “O Clavis David…”
O Key of David  and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and bring forth the captive from his prison, he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen.

December 21 “O Oriens…”
O Morning Star, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Justice: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen.

December 22“O Rex…”
O King of the Nations,  and their desired One, the Cornerstone that makes both one: come, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth. Amen.

December 23 “O Emmanuel…”
O Emmanuel, God with us, Our King and Lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Saviour: come to save us, O Lord our God. Amen.

Why not pray each one slowly during this time before Christmas?  It will take very little time but it will root you into the meaning of this special time before Christmas as you await the joy of the Christ-child.

Another way of meditating on the Advent Antiphons is in the singing of the Hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.  Each of the 7 verses takes one of the antiphons as its theme.

But the hymn begins and ends with the most important antiphon – O Emmanuel, God with us.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
  Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
  shall come to you, O Israel.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.
  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.
  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.
  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
  Rejoice! Rejoice! …

(This translation is by John Mason Neale)

(image from Parish of St Ann, Bethany Beach, DE)

[Mr G]

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