An excellent reflection on the upcoming Great Antiphons that take us through the week leading into Christmas. More about them tomorrow, as we begin our official countdown. For the time being, here is some food for thought from Roma Locuta Est:
I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the loss of Catholic identity that the Church has undergone in recent generations. I haven’t decided if it is the natural result of changing tides in culture or if it was accomplished by a deliberate iconoclasm of sorts that plagued the Church in the later part of last century. Whatever the reason, it seems undeniable that a large portion of the faithful havelost a sense of Catholic identity. Participation in the Sacraments and the broader life of faith has become more what we do rather than what we are. (Pope Benedict has called this a false primacy of praxis over being.) Recently I recalled a story a priest once told me. This particular gentleman grew up on the east side of Columbus, Ohio, where his family owned a bar/restaurant. Every day at noon when the bells rang out from the Catholic Church across the street, everyone in the bar dropped what they were doing and said the Angelus. Even those who were not Catholic sat in silence during the recitation of the prayer because they know if they didn’t, they would not be served. This story is an illustration of Catholic identity. If the same bells were to ring today, how many Catholic would know why, let alone be able to rattle off the words to the Angelus?
The example of bygone practices once integral to the life of a Catholic seems endless. One such instance is the ancient tradition of the O Antiphons. Beginning on December 17 and continuing for seven days, the antiphons for the Magnificatduring evening Vespers all begin with “O, ...”. Each of the antiphons is addressed to Christ using one of his scriptural titles and concludes with a distinct petition to the coming Lord. For instance, the first antiphon (December 17) reads:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
The translation in the American breviary is not quite literal:
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.
The dating of the antiphons goes back to at least the sixth century (Boethius mentions them in the early 500’s). By the eight century, the antiphons were being used in Rome. One of the more striking thing about the seven antiphons cannot be seen in translation, but only in the original Latin. The seven titles of Christ that begin each of the antiphons are:
Sapientia (Wisdom)Adonai (Lord)Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)Clavis David (Key of David)Oriens (Dawn)Rex Gentium (King of Nations)Emmanuel (Emmanuel)
Reading the first letter of each title beginning with the last (December 23), we find EROCRAS. In Latin, ero cras means “I will be (there) tomorrow.”
While the recitation of the antiphons themselves has fallen out of use, a particular adaption of them is quite popular in churches, both Catholic and non: the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. Consider the corresponding verse for the December 17 antiphon (O Sapientia):
Veni, O Sapientia,Quae hic disponis omnia,Veni, viam prudentiaeUt doceas et gloriae.O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,And order all things, far and nigh;To us the path of knowledge show,And cause us in her ways to go.
Of course, most parishes begin playing this on the first Sunday of Advent, when ideally it should be delayed until much closer to Christmas, preferable beginning on December 17. Of course it would be better to hold public Vespers from December 17 through the 23rd; then the corresponding verse from the hymn can be sung on the intended day.
While the parish is the first place we encounter the public worship of the Church, Catholic identity is first encountered in the domestic church. Of course, both the domestic Church and the parish must always properly oriented to the universal Church. Thus, the introduction of the O Antiphons within the home can provide a beautiful crescendo of preparation in the final days of Advent. If families are in the habit of praying Vespers, then they will encounter the antiphons in their proper context. For our own part, our family will pray the antiphons at the dinner table before the family meal. The mother will light the candles of the Advent wreath while the father chants the antiphon in the original Gregorian melody. The oldest child will then read the vernacular translation of the antiphon, and later at Compline, the entire family will sing the corresponding verse in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
However it is done, the recovery of the O Antiphons can serve as a perfect opportunity for instilling Catholic identity within the home and the broader parish community. Advent is a time of preparation, of penance, and of anticipation for the coming Christ child. The progressive lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath serves to evoke this growing sense of anticipation. The recitation of the O Antiphons provides a finale of sorts for this crescendo. With the universal Church and with a great sense of Christian hope, we pray for the coming of the Lord, the one who will save us from our sin and restore us to the favor of the Father.
O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.(Antiphon from December 23)