Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The "O" Antiphons

In a chapel adjacent to the holy cave of Bethlehem (the cave-chapel in question is part of the small complex chosen by St Jerome to live and to translate the bible into Latin - the Vulgate) there are two pillars on which are written the beginnings of the “O” Antiphons (O Wisdom, O Lord, O Stock of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King and O Emmanuel). Standing in that cave-chapel seems to stand at the second part of the Advent Season which will start tomorrow.
The remembrance of these texts surrounding the altar literally next door to the place were the incarnation was made manifest enables us to see the Eucharistic dimension of these wonderful antiphons. Him whom we await is already present among us on the altar and promises us to be our light, our freedom and our salvation. If the opening phrases of these antiphons make the Old Testament come to life, their concluding phrases – come to teach us, to redeem, to free, to save – demonstrate their relevance to our daily life.
Some say that these antiphons go back to the time of Charlemagne. However old they may be these antiphons are well known and well loved and this can be seen by the music composed for them and the way they were used down the centuries.
Addressed to Christ these antiphons are used from the 17 to the 23 December as the Gospel acclamation for the Mass and as the Antiphon of the Magnificat in Vespers.
The antiphons provide us with a focus for Advent when in its last day our attention has to be more focused and our desire to see the face of the beloved more burning. Short but deep these antiphons can be the context of our daily prayer from tomorrow until Christmas.
The origins of Advent are lost in the mist of time because in its first centuries the Church was troubled by persecutions. When the feast of Christmas was established the Church continued to borrow terminology well known to the pagan context in which it was forced to live. For the Roman Empire, the word Advent had a double meaning. It meant the feast day of a pagan god when the corresponding idol would be exposed in a temple, and some of these temples were only opened once a year on the feast day. Advent meant here the appearance of the idol. It meant also the election, and its subsequent anniversaries, of an emperor and also his first visit to any city after his election. Advent, for Christians came to mean the preparation for the appearance of the Christ in the flesh celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany. The earliest documents available are those for the preparation to Epiphany in France and Spain. The first is a homily attributed to St Hilary in the year 360AD which speaks of a three-week preparation for Epiphany starting on 17 December the same day in which pagans started their festival of the Saturnalia. The second document is Canon 4 of the Council of Saragossa exhorting Christians to stay at home and to attend church in the three weeks leading up to Epiphany, most probably to stay away from the Saturnalia. The third document is a letter conserved in a monastery in Sweden in which a pious lady exhorts her friend to spend the three weeks leading up to Epiphany in a monastery to spend this time in prayer and in reparation for the sins committed during the Saturnalia. This sheds light on why Advent changes gear on the 17th December and why these days are graced with the beautiful “O” Antiphons.
There was a time when among the Messianic “O” Antiphons an antiphon composed in honour of Our Lady found its place. This is for two reasons. Firstly, Advent is the Marian season of the church when with Mary it expects the coming of the Lord. In Mary, the Church sees the fulfilment of the Old Testament as her yes brought about the promise to which the Old Testament hopes and expects. In Mary, the Church sees the prototype of the Church united in prayer, following in the footsteps of Christ, praying with the Church as it receives the gift of the Spirit and living in the fullness of Divine life in Jerusalem the Golden. Secondly, it was an established tradition by the sixth century for the feast of Our Lady in her expectancy to be celebrated annually on the 18th December, eight days before Christmas. This antiphon goes like this: “O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? That which ye behold is a divine mystery.” This feast day was known also as “Our Lady of “O”” and the Feast of “O”, from its antiphon. The mass on this day was celebrated at dawn, with Mary expecting the dawn of the coming of Christ, (a tradition still widely practised in Austria during the Advent season).
Mary opens for us the mystery of the season of Advent, for her it was the privileged time in which she bore in her womb with great love the Son expected by the ages. For us Advent is the providential time to await in vigil the coming of this Son in our hearts. Inspired by the “O” Antiphons and assisted by Mary let us with confidence and joy prepare to enter this new phase of Advent tomorrow.

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