Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Great "O" Antiphons

Finding the Christmas music around here can be a challenge --- I never remember where I put stuff --- but the CDs, a couple of dozen, turned up yesterday behind the lower doors of a bookcase and I’m in business, listening this morning to an Advent service based on the Great “O” Antiphons recorded some years ago at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle.

The “O” Antiphons are seven brief prayers traditionally spoken, chanted or sung in precise sequence, one each during evening prayer, or vespers, in the final days of Advent, a period known as the Octave before Christmas which commenced yesterday on Dec. 17 and concludes on Dec. 24 with the Christmas Vigil.

This recording was an Advent gift several years ago, so I always think of the giver when I listen to it --- as well as the traditions wrapped in music and liturgy it represents. Heck, it may even inspire me to put up the Christmas tree today. We’ll see.

The Great O’s are among the oldest liturgical elements of Advent we have, found in literature dating to the sixth century and familiar in monasteries across Christendom by the eighth. Traditionally used with the Magnificat, the O’s are most familiar in the Roman, Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran churches.

Each antiphon begins with the acclamation “O,” followed by titles for the Messiah based upon the prophecy of Isaiah --- O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Dayspring), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) and O Emmanuel (O God with Us).

Another extremely cool thing about the O’s is that the monks who arranged these antiphons centuries ago in prescribed order incorporated a message by doing so. By starting with the last title and taking the first letter of each, Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai and Sapientia, the Latin words “ero cras,” translated as “Tomorrow, I will come,” are formed, an ancient way of announcing a joyful end to Advent preparations for the Messiah.

I’m willing to bet that the Great O’s don’t come up very often in casual conversation among those who sing the carols of Advent and Christmas --- “never heard of that.” But most of us have, in the form of the familiar Advent hymn, “O come, o come Emmanuel” (“Veni, veni Emmanuel”).

This version, thought to date from the twelfth century, has been translated from the Latin for those us who speak English in slightly differing ways. Its setting, usually ascribed to a fifteenth century processional for Franciscan nuns, may have its origins in eighth century Gregorian chants.

So if you happen to sing this familiar carol during the week now commencing --- think about the words coming out of your mouth and consider for a moment that you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with more than a thousand years of the faithful, and the faithless, who have marked this season in hope and, now and then, in despair.

Here’s an abbreviated version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (only five of the antiphons are sung and they are out of order) that I like, sung by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

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