In the Church's traditional cycle of prayer, Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, always includes the great song of Mary known as the Magnificat (luke 1:46-55). This song is preceded and followed by a short verse or "antiphon" that links it to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the Magnificat antiphons are very special. Each begins with the exclamation "O" and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.
These "O Antiphons" were composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together some of the key Old Testament texts and phrases looking forward to our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of Scriptural images; in the Middle Ages the custom grew of ringing the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.
A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS. These are understood as the words of Jesus, responding to his people's plea, saying "Tomorrow I will be there."
For the remainder of Advent I will provide the day's "O Antiphon" as well as a short reflections on the Scripture readings set for the day's Mass, adapted from Homilies for Weekdays, by Don Talafous (Liturgical Press, 2005).
Of special note is the recording of a haunting and beautiful setting of these Antiphons by the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis (b. 1954) who began his work on them in 1995 but did not complete the set until 2003. They are for a double choir, and contain numerous overlaid harmonies. The music was recorded by the Royal Holloway Choir, conducted by Rupert Gough, at St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, in January 2010. You can listen to Miskinis' O Antiphons HERE. (You will also find details of the other works on the CD and how to purchase it.)