The final week of Advent is marked by the Solemn Antiphons for the Magnificat at Vespers. They are also know as the “O Antiphons” because each begins with the exclamation “O” as it calls upon the incarnate Lord by one of this titles taken largely from Jewish Prophecy. These antiphons emerged from the “imperial” ceremonial of Charlemagne’s court, a pivotal era in the development of Gregorian chant. Apart from the antiphons’ solemnity, they also reflect the liturgical drama, the Latin literary culture (considered somewhat “debased” when compared to classical Latin) and what we might call “entertainment” values of the era. If you drop the “O” from each antiphon and read backwards (don’t miss it!) the first letter of each title (in Latin, of course), the letters spell out a little sentence: Ero cras. That is, “I will be there tomorrow”, “tomorrow” being Christmas Eve when the First Vespers of the Nativity would be sung. Did monks in choir really play these silly word games? Is this what people did before there was Facebook? Well, I suppose its an improvement on the Bishops in Charlemagne’s court who led armies into battle!
In the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, some monastic congregations sang the O Antiphon and Magnificat to the pealing of church bells or even repeated the entire antiphon between each couplet of the Magnificat. De gustibus non disputandum! There’s no (fruitful) arguing about taste!
The antiphons themselves are worthy compendiums of scriptural themes:
17 December: [O Sapientia] O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end [of creation] with mighty strength, yet tenderly disposing all things with loving care: O come! Come to teach us and to guide us in the right way of Wisdom’s path.
18 December: [O Adonai] O Adonai and leader of the House of Israel, who once appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and on Sinai’s heights gave him the tablets of the Law: O come! Come, redeem your people, come save us with outstretched arm.
19 December: [O Radix Jesse] O Root of Jesse’s stock, raised as a standard for the peoples, before who kings stand mute and silent, whom all the nations pray and reverence: O come! Come set us free, come Lord, do not delay!
20 December: [O Clavis David] O Key of David‘s House and Scepter of Isreal, who open and none can avail to close; who close and no one can open: O come! Come to free us from our prison where we sit and languish in the darkness, where we wait in the shadow of death.
21 December: [ O Oriens] O Radiant Dawn, splendor of the eternal, true rising Sun of Justice: O come! Give us light and warmth, for we sit in deepest darkness where we dwell in the shadow of death.
22 December: [O Rex Gentium] O King of the nations so long desired, so long awaited, the Keystone that binds us into one, the Cornerstone of unity: O come! Come and save the human race whom you fashioned from earthen clay.
23 December: [ O Emmanuel] O Emmanuel, King and Giver of the Torah, the One for whom all the nations long, our Savior and our Redeemer: O Come! Come to free us, come to save us, for you alone are Lord and God.