For anyone, accustomed to attend church services during the weeks that amount to Christmas, they may be familiar with the concept of the Great O antiphons. Some churches would even have a service of the Word where these antiphons are the protagonists. Generally speaking, an antiphon is a variable text (also known as Proper in liturgical jargon) often sung before and, though not always, after a psalm or a canticle. Some of these antiphons (such as the famous Minor Proper at the offertory and Communion at Mass, the ones during processions and those in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary after an office) are recited or sung with a psalm or canticle along with a versicle, a response and a collect as a way to commemorate a feast or any particular reason. The word antiphon comes from Greek (αντιφονος) which means responsive or to reply in a raised voice from where the Latin Church took it literally and without translation.1 From this word, the Church in the West also had the word antiphony, which was a type of psalmody recited or sung in alternation. 2 Some antiphons derive from Scriptural texts. Others do not take their source from Scripture, but they equally influence the mode of the service. A good example of these are the Marian antiphons such as Salve Regina, Alma Rendemptoris, Ave Regina Caelorum and Regina Caeli as well as the Greek Sub tuum praesitium. 3 Another group of antiphons include the ones sung for Palm Sunday and Major Litanies (Litaniae maiores) connected to Rogation Day on 25th April. 4 When Scriptural antiphons are sung, however, these exercise two functionalities, namely, to denote a mood or a tone, with Nations. Finally, as Christmas approaches ever upon the calendar, the antiphons resound what these compositions are all about; the doctrine of the Incarnation and the nativity of God on earth with us (Emmanuel). The O Antiphons point us to deep meaningful realities of the Christian faith and they join us to the same hope found in Scripture. First, the antiphons point us to Christological truths for the season of waiting; not just during Advent but beyond. Using a great deal of the inspiration from the book of Isaiah they announce the coming of Messiah as it happened two millennia ago. However, the references to apocalyptic scripture -as from the book of the Revelation of St John – point us to the Second coming. Advent is just a shorthand for the hopeful expectancy of the Christian life. As postresurrection Christians we are called to live in a hopeful state of joyful suspense in which we do not know when the Lord will come, while we celebrate the fact that he has come through a virgin’s womb. Such blissful and expectant state is what some theologians refer to the already-not-yet. The antiphons, along with the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55), become thus signposts of God’s faithfulness. Catholic priest Oliver Treanor said: Even as we celebrate the triumph of Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem we are preparing [ourselves] for his ultimate victory at the eschaton. The Advent antiphons express this tension in the way they are [constructed]. Each consists of an invocation followed by an acclamation and then a supplication… This is why the ‘O’ is repeated at the end of the antiphon -this time as an urgent supplication. ‘O come to teach us’, ‘O come and save’, ‘O come to deliver us’, ‘O come to free the captive’. ‘O come and enlighten us’, ‘O come and save man’. ‘O come and save us’. We who make these appeals may well be redeemed, but we labour under the shadow of original sin. Until he comes to be fully formed in us, as once he was in Mary, we cannot grow ‘to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ (Eph. 4: 13). Each exclamation consequently signifies desperate need and desperate hope. Upon his save delivery depends our safe deliverance. 7 This small work will navigate along the Great ‘O’s to concentrate on their biblical references. Through the lenses of the ‘O’ Antiphons those pieces of Scripture would elucidate how the tradition of the Church has seen these texts from the Middle Ages - and even earlier – as well as onwards. This tradition found inspiration in ‘Holy Writ’, and the result was these beautiful Antiphons which, unlike other antiphons, suffered no alteration due to their beautiful and creative nature. They highlight strong senses of hope and anguish, excitement and expectancy, hope and resignation of a time not arrived. These are also strong emotions present in the Bible, which is why this book aspired to combine Scripture in the Antiphons, as a source of investigation. Together, the reader can achieve a greater understanding of both the Bible and of the tradition of the Church. These O Antiphons help the Church to sing to the Lord with shouts of joy (Psalm 95); to sing the God revealed in the Bible and inspired by his Holy Spirit (Tim. 3:16-17); and to worship God in his Church in a fitting way (Eph. 5:19). The content of this book is not exhaustive by any means. It is recommended to be read with a Bible along the way. Ideally, the Bible references in each section will prompt the reader to investigate deeper in Scriptures where the passage come from, its contextual relevance and its extrapolation to our Christian reality in the twenty-first century. There will be further consideration for reflection both in each antiphon theme as well as in the appendix at the end. The questions are generally designed for introspection, but they can be very suitable for group discussions; in which case, an atmosphere of honest intimacy and vulnerability might be required. It therefore becomes a suitable resource of any church community to go deeper in the faith and deeper in their Anglican tradition during a special time of the year such as Advent.
While there is a book in the Anglican Bible called Wisdom 8 , there are many other references to wisdom elsewhere. For example wisdom is personified in the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs 8:12, wisdom says: I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion. It is in this spirit of personification of wisdom as an attribute of God that the antiphon makes its plea. Jesus is this wisdom. God is the ultimate source of wisdom and only him can grant the grace of prudence. In Isaiah 11:2 we can read : The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The Most High spoke, the antiphon goes, and wisdom came forth. The connections to John 1 are remarkable, but also in Isaiah we can see how this description can be applied to our Lord Jesus as well. In fact, during this season of advent, we remember numerous times and in numerous forms how the fruit of the Spirit, as Isaiah describes it, rest on the Messiah. John 1:14 says that the Word of God came full of grace and truth. One way of identifying wisdom is contemplating the truth that carries with it, and when one sees truth in wisdom, it becomes very easy to identify the grace that has been given to find it. The Word of God is Jesus. Our Creed articulates very clearly that it is through the Father that the Son is begotten. It is the trinitarian unity of mutual union or interpenetration. Jesus is this wisdom that the Father has given us. In Jesus we find a perfect use of prudence; that is, practical wisdom that empowers one to be good and to act well in ordinary and extraordinary affairs.
Pray with the antiphon O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come and teach us the way of prudence. For Reflection What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge? How do you feel about seeing Jesus Christ as wisdom? In what ways to you seek wisdom? How regular do you ask God for the spirit of wisdom in your life? What is one thing you did not get from this antiphon?
Antiphon O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him your Law: Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us! The attentive heart can find in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament some parallelism between the Exodus narrative in the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus in the New. Two key events in the life of Moses are present in this antiphon; the first is his calling from the position of comfort to a position of self-sacrifice in order that God may save his people (cf. Exodus 3). The second event takes place after God has save the people from the political – and spiritual – power of Egypt. God then gives Moses the Decalogue9 and with it, he establishes a covenant with his people (cf. Exodus 20). Moses was presented with God’s plans for freedom and was baffled by it: If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you. (Ex. 3:14b) The proper name for God is I am. Such unique name belongs to no other and the Jewish faith consider this name so full of meaning, reverence and holiness. It is ethically inappropriate to even utter it. So, instead of using the Holy Name, they choose to address God with his status of Lord (Adonai). Every time the Holy Name of God is present in Scripture, the Jewish people would substitute it for Adonai. Semantically speaking, this Adonai functions very much as a proper name; an intimate name to talk to God. Jesus, as Lord (Adonai) and as the new Moses, he creates and gives us a new commandment in John 13:34: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Like Moses, he delivers us from the slavery state of any chains that keep us from being free to love God. Like Moses he intercedes for us to God (cf. Rom. 8:34). Moses casts Nehushtan10 on a pole so that the people of Israel may look at it and be saved (cf. Num. 21.4-9). Jesus is stuck on a cross with outstretched arms, as the antiphon prays, and through him, we are saved.
Pray with the antiphon O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him your Law: Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us! For Reflection The liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt by the hand of Moses was such a crucial event in the history of God’s people that Judaism bases a great deal of its identity on this historical event. As Christians, how has the ‘new Exodus’ by Jesus affected our identity? How do you address God in your life? What sentiment does it convey? Can you think of any art where God’s arm is outstretched significant to you?
19th December Antiphon O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. Come and save us and do not delay. Poet Malcolm Guite shares the following about this antiphon: The third Antiphon, ‘O Radix’, is a prayer that calls on Christ as the Root, an image I find particularly compelling and helpful. The antiphon refers to the image of the ‘tree of Jesse’, the family tree that leads to David and ultimately to Christ as the ‘Son of David’… for me the title ‘Radix’ goes deeper, as a good root should, deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation. God in Christ is, I believe, the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, said Christ, who also said, ‘O am the vine, you are the branches’ (John 15.5). 11 We all come from a family tree. Some wishes they did not come from that particular tree. Others wished their branches had not become rotten. The Bible is full of lineage connections. In fact, the whole of the OT is a narrative based on the lineage of God’s people, who made it out of Egypt, then who made it into Exile, who came from Babylonia, who qualified for worshipping at the Temple, etc. Tribes, family names, descendance and gene poles carries a very heavy load on Scriptures. The Gospel according to St. Matthew commences its narratives with Jesus’ genealogy, which traces it
from Abraham to Josef, the son of Jacob, the son of Matthan (cf. Matt. 1: 1-17). This antiphon refers particularly to the passage in Isaiah 11:1: A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The prophet Micah also announces that the Christ will come as Jesse’s descendance as Jesse was from the tribe of Judah in Micah 5:2: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. In Jesus all the promises of the patriarchs, St Paul says, are confirmed in Romans 15 and quoting Isaiah, he refers to the tree of Jesse as evidence for it (cf. Rom. 15:12). Jesus came and saved us, and he will come again. Hence our supplication at the end of the antiphon: come and do not delay. Pray with the antiphon O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. Come and save us and do not delay. For Reflection The bestselling book The Hidden life of Trees suggests that the root of a tree should technically be considered its brain. The many duties that the roots exercise help the tree to defend itself from exterior threats. Roots allow a tree to transfer nutrients, not just to other parts of the tree but to other trees too. The different roots of the trees are interconnected in a web of communication and relation which ensure the survival of the whole ecosystem from all kinds of dangers. We could strongly argue that without the roots, trees would not survive. What are your roots? Is the Radix of Jesse your personal root? How does Jesus maintain your livelihood both spiritually and physically?
20th December Antiphon O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel: You open and none may close, You close and none may open. Come and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. The overarching story of the Bible can be seen through a lock. In Genesis 3 and onwards, paradise is locked out for humans due to their transgressions in it. Our human sinful freedom caused our hearts to think of ourselves more than God. In that manner, we could not be citizen of the kingdom of God. We were usurping his throne and we had to locked out of it. Isaiah 22:22 reminds us that not all is lost. There will be a time when this paradise, this kingdom will be open for us again. God will make this happen through the key: I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. Such authority will be given to this member of the house of David, this key. Fast forwarding to Revelation, we can find the end-result: After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! Revelation 4:1 This door would take St John to heaven and this time he would see that paradise is now a city with twelve doors or gates opened for us to come in. The key of David has opened it for all who believe (cf. Rev. 21:21). This keynthat has opened the gates of heaven for us is Jesus Christ through whom, Ephesians 2:18 tells us, ‘we have now access in one Spirit to the Father.’ St Paul also says: God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 2 Cor. 5:18-19 Jesus has literally become for us the access to an intimate relationship with God. We were in the prison of Adam’s illusion12 until God pitch his tent among us and became one of us. This Key of David, however, also says in Revelation the following: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. Revelation 3:20 Remember our human sinful freedom from Genesis 3? Jesus brings us an opportunity to come to terms with this. While he has gained for us what we could not attain for ourselves, we can cling to him and choose (will) to receive what he has obtained for us. At this time, the Holy Spirit will enable us to choose and to see what great gift this is for our lives. And that is why the antiphon continues with the supplication akin to the song of Zechariah in Luke 1: By the tender mercy of our God, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Lk. 1. 78a, 79 This evangelistic prayer is the desire of all those who have found this joy and wants the whole world to participate in it. The key of David gives us access that we become ourselves helpers for others to find that key. Pray with the antiphon O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel: You open and none may close, You close and none may open. Come and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. For Reflection In what ways can the concept of key be seen more than figuratively?
21st December Antiphon O Dayspring, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Dayspring is the same as saying dawn. It is a phenomenon related to light. The Sun is what caused this dawn or dayspring to spring up from the horizon on the east (orient) and to bring light to night. In biology as well as during biblical times, light can be associated with restoration, and with life. In the Bible, particularly, what is in the light is something visible, and clear. Thus, Jesus is identified in liturgies with the Sun of Righteousness (light and good morality, cf. Malachi 4:2) who would radiate his righteous light upon us all. The concept of light as a good thing is particularly clear in Job 38.12, or in the Benedictus, the song of Zechariah, in the gospel of St Luke: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, Lk 1:78 Psalm 23 also suggests darkness as a negative place: Even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. Ps. 23:4 Even when the psalmist finds a situation of chaos, horror and obscurity, the protection of God will be always available. Moreover, picking up this luminous reference, the prophet Isaiah suggests that something has been brightened up in his time:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. Isaiah 9:2 The Christian faith picks up this Messianic overtone and locates such news in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Sun of Justice that puts everything to right. His restorative power brings people from darkness into the radiant light of which, truth, goodness, beauty and wisdom, emanate. By contrast, those who do not find life in the light, live in a shadow of death. Pray with the antiphon O Dayspring, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. For Reflection This antiphon has allusions to numerous biblical references. Perhaps you would like to consider going deeper into those passages and how they would relate in their context as well as to each other. How does light affect you in your daily life? Some countries have problems with Vitamin D deficiency. In the UK 8.4% of UK white 19–64 years old people have vitamin D deficiency… in the summertime, which rises to 39.3% in the winter.14 In some cases, populations suffer from severe Seasonal Additive Disorder (SAD). If we consider the effects of the Sun in our bodies, in what ways can Jesus be the spiritual sun of our souls? The three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) use the East (Oriens) as a central focus in the structure of their temples. To what degree does the significance of the rising of the Sun affect our Christian understanding of eschatology?
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