Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Countdown: O Antiphons

The O Antiphons.  We don't hear about them at Sunday Mass, they don't figure into the daily Mass readings in Advent. But every year around this time you hear them talked about.  They are 7 honorific titles for Jesus, each one sung during evening prayer on the 7 last days before Christmas.

I used to assume they each began with the letter "O" -- which was weird, because I couldn't really think of any such titles that might fit for Jesus. ("Orator?") But no, they're called "O" antiphons because each one starts with the word "O", as you use when you're addressing a king. "O Wisdom"; "O Lord"; "O Root of Jesse"; "O Key of David"; "O Dayspring" (also translated "O Morning Star", "O rising sun"; "O King of the nations"; "O Emmanuel" (aka God is with us).

As you see from that list, each offers a different lens on what makes Jesus the Messiah -- he's the font of wisdom, the source of light, the king of all nations. They're derived from Jewish titles for the Messiah; each references Isaiah's images of the Messiah who would bring Israel back from its exile. Isaiah 11: "A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse" (Jesse: the father of King David); Isaiah 22: "I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut. He shall shut, and no one shall open." (See how even these titles, which seem more about lineage than power, actually describe gifts that Jesus has.  He brings life from the dead stump; he binds and loosens.)

It's unclear when these antiphons started, but historians say they came from the Benedictines, and by the 8th century they were being used in Rome.

And hidden within them is a cool, DaVinci Code type word game.  Take the first word from the original Latin used in each of these titles:
Sapientia  Adonai  Radix  Clavis  Oriens  Rex   Emmanuel
Now put them in reverse order:
Emmanuel  Rex  Oriens  Clavis  Radix  Adonai  Sapientia 
Drop all but the first letters:
And you have the Latin phrase: "Tomorrow, I will come."  (Isn't that cool?)

If we're really going to appreciate these antiphons, though, we need to hear them, as they weren't read, they were sung.  

With help from chantblog.blogspot.com, I found cool little videos of the 7 antiphons sung.  They're each really short, just a minute or so, and if you're into chant, you actually see the chant lines moving across the screen as the antiphons are sung.

They might provide a nice little moment of peace in the midst of the busyness of the next few days.

O Wisdom:

O Lord:

O Root of Jesse:

O Key of David:

O Dayspring -- today's antiphon,  which comes from Isaiah 9: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined." That image of Jesus as light, probably one of my favorites.

O King of the Nations:

O Emmanuel:

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