Friday, December 16, 2016

The Advent "O Antiphons"

Here is a reflection on our "Advent yearning", adapted from Matthew Woodley's Devotions for Advent (p. 10):

Advent ignites a deep longing in our hearts. Before we rush into “Happy Holidays,” we pause and let that longing rise up within us, and we catch glimpses of a better world.

We catch glimpses of a Messiah-healed world, and long for its coming now. The best of our Advent hymns capture this spirit of groaning and longing for Messiah’s better world. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” with its dark, unresolved melody, cracks our hearts open with longing’s wound. Yet, we know Messiah has come, even as we wait for him to come again. Advent is a deliciously painful mix of expectant joy and anguish.

Advent longing is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Augustine’s Latin phrase desiderium sinus cordis -”yearning makes the heart grow deep”- became a central theme in his pilgrimage on earth. Augustine cried out, “Give me one who yearns . . . give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean.”

C.S. Lewis claimed that in this life the Advent-like stab of longing serves as a spiritual homing device, placed deep in our hearts by God to lead us back to him. Thus, as Psyche realizes in Till We Have Faces, “It almost hurt me . . . like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home . . . The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from . . . The longing for home.”

Advent trains us to ache again. Of all the seasons of the Church year, Advent is the time to acknowledge, feel, and even embrace the joyful anguish of longing for Messiah’s birth and the world’s rebirth. So we sing our aching songs while we light candles and festoon the church with greenery. That is Advent longing, and we couldn’t imagine it any other way.

* * * * * * * * * *

During the last seven days of Advent (17th to 24th December), the Church supports our longing (in Matthew Woodley's words) for "a Messiah-healed world" by giving us a special series of antiphon-prayers from the heart of the Old Testament. Each day our service of Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, includes the wonderful song of Mary we know as the “Magnificat”, taken from Luke 1:46-55. (It's called "Magnificat" because that is its first word in Latin.) Throughout the year, Mary’s song is preceded and followed by a short verse or “antiphon” tied to the theme of the particular feast day or the season of the Church year we are in. During these last days of Advent each of the Magnificat antiphons begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for 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 tapestry of Biblical images, and give shape to our Advent waiting. In the Middle Ages the custom grew of ringing the the church bells each evening as they were being sung.

The antiphons are:

December 17: O SAPIENTIA (O Wisdom)
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

O Wisdom, that camest out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to another, firmly and gently ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of understanding. (See Isaiah 28:29; Sirach 24:1-5; Wisdom of Solomon 8:1)

December 18: O ADONAI (O Adonai)
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

Captain of the house of Israel, who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and gavest him the law on Sinai: Come and deliver us with thine outsretched arm. (See Isaiah 33:22; Exodus 3:2; Exodus 24:12)

December 19: O RADIX JESSE (O Root of Jesse)
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who standest for an ensign of the people, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the nations shall seek: Come and deliver us and tarry not. (See Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 11:10; Micah 5:2; Isaiah 45:14; Isaiah 52:15; Romans 15:12)

December 20: O CLAVIS DAVID (O Key of David)
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, Sceptre of the house of Israel, who openest and no man shutteth, and shuttest and not man openeth; Come and bring forth out of the prisonhouse him that is bound. (See Isaiah 22:22; Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 42:7)

December 21: O ORIENS (O Dayspring)
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Dayspring from on high, Brightness of Eternal Light, and Sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. (See Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 60:1-2; Malachi 4:2)

December 22: O REX GENTIUM (O King of Nations)
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O King of Nations, thou for whom they long, the Cornerstone that makest them both one: Come and save thy creatures whom thou didst fashion from the dust of the earth. (See Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 28:16; Ephesians 2:14)

December 23: O EMMANUEL (O Emmanuel)
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God. (See Isaiah 7:14)

* * * * * * * * * * 

A quirky feature of these antiphons is that the first letter of each, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin. That is, the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS, “Tomorrow, I will be [there]” the assurance from Jesus that he is responding to the ancient cry of his people.

Even lay people who don't make daily use of the service of Evening Prayer find that they profit greatly by praying the Magnificat during these final days of Advent, with the particular day's "O Antiphon" before and after it. I encourage you to do that!

* * * * * * * * * * 

A metrical poem in Latin, based on the O Antiphons, emerged in the 12th Century. The melody, usually considered to be of French origin, was added to the text a hundred years later. The Latin, in turn, has been translated into English. This version (from the New English Hymnal) is the work of T. A. Lacey (1853-1931). It has become one of our most popular hymns/ carols for Advent:

O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel,
That into exile drear is gone 
Far from the face of God’s dear Son. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high!
Who madest all in earth and sky,
Creating man from dust and clay:
To us reveal salvation’s way.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Adonai,
Who in thy glorious majesty
From Sinai’s mountain, clothed with awe, 
Gavest thy folk the ancient law.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Root of Jesse! draw 
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From those dread caverns of the grave.
From nether hell, thy people save.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Lord of David’s Key!
The royal door fling wide and free; 
Safeguard for us the heavenward road. 
And bar the way to death’s abode.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright! 
Pour on our souls thy healing light; 
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom, 
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations! 
show Thy kingly reign on earth below;
Thou Corner-stone, uniting all.
Restore the ruin of our fall.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


Post a Comment