The Great "O" Antiphons

Church of the Holy Communion has initiated a new musical offering for the Advent season this year, based upon the “O” Antiphons associated with the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” For each verse of this beloved Advent hymn, as printed at Hymn 56 in The Hymnal 1982, the hymn text has a printed date attached to each stanza. Each of these hymn stanzas refers to an antiphon based upon a name given to Christ in the Old Testament and is a petition for the scriptural fulfillment of the prophets. The antiphons are namely: O Wisdom, O Lord of might, O Branch of Jesse’s tree, O Key of David, O Dayspring from on high, O Desire of nations, and O come, Emmanuel.

The origin of these “O” Antiphons is not known, but they have been found in manuscripts from the Ninth Century and are historically attributed to St. Gregory the Great. They  were chanted before and after the Magnificat canticle in daily monastic life during vespers on the days leading up to Christmas Day. In the Roman Catholic tradition, they are used as the antiphons with the Alleluia verse for Mass on these days as well.

The writings of Boethius (480-524), a Roman senator and philosopher, make a slight reference to the “O” Antiphons, which might suggest that they were used as early as the Sixth Century. By the Eighth Century, they are in regular use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, thus dating them back to the very early Church.

When printed in reverse order and using the initial capital letter that begins each word, the “O” Antiphons spell out the Latin phrase ero cras (“I will be tomorrow”): Emmanuel, Rex (King), Oriens (East), Clavis (Key), Radix (Root), Adonai (Lord), and Sapientia (Wisdom). There is little theological scholarship to document this hidden meaning, but manuscripts with illuminated initial capitals for each “O” Antiphon do exist. Coincidence? Hmmm.

In a published musical setting of The Great “O” Antiphons, music by Peter R. Hallock, Carl Crossier and Richard Gieseke wrote this description:

This “O” Antiphon service reworks a form used at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, using the “O” Antiphons in sequence to form its basic structure. It attempts to bring past and present together and to help the worshiper focus on the meaning of the Advent (“coming”) in our own time. Each part of the service begins with an Antiphon, followed by the scripture reading on which it is based and a motet or hymn amplifying its symbolism, and ends with a prayer challenging us to prepare ourselves and our world to receive Christ in the true spirit of these Advent prophecies.

Indeed, the liturgy ends with a prayer that calls us to prepare our hearts and our world to again receive the Christ Child into our midst. This Sunday evening, a brass quartet of players from the Memphis Symphony will join our Parish Choir, Motet Choir and Holy Communion Choristers for some wonderful music, including a new, unpublished brass setting of the grand Advent hymn “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” by Sondra Tucker. It was written especially for this liturgical occasion. Come and celebrate the advent of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 5:44 PM
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