An intermission… What are the Great ‘O’ Antiphons?

There are many good explanations of what the Great ‘O’ antiphons of Advent are, and meditations on each. For example, this one, this one (click forwards for the rest of the antiphons) and this one.  And even Wikipedia has some good material.

What am I talking about?  The seven antiphons historically used by the ancient church at ‘vespers’ – the evening service – sung before and after the Magnificat.  Each is a short cry to the Messiah to come to us. Each echoes a different prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.  Taking the seven different daily titles for the Messiah in Latin and reading backwards, you get the phrase “Ero cras” – “Tomorrow, I come” – a true Advent prayer.

These antiphons have been used since ancient times by the Benedictines, and now appear in the liturgical materials of many denominations and traditions – including the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Presbetyrian Church.

Why might they find them helpful? Why do I find them helpful? Clearly, I cannot speak for anyone but myself – I can but speculate. But here are some thoughts:

  • each is a cry to God – a prayer in itself. It is a call to God to come soon.  We know Christmas will come, Mayan predictions notwithstanding. But that doesn’t make the longing any easier.  These are not simple words of comfort – they are an echo of our own sense of longing;
  • each is biblically grounded.  The Wikipedia article sets out some references which they reflect. Common Worship‘s Times and Seasons volume (p58-9) also provides helpful biblical analogies for each as well as accompanying readings. I tire sometimes of people criticising the use of good liturgy rather than relying on the Bible and preaching. Like much of the best liturgy, this is biblically grounded and made to be striking;
  • each has a connection with the ancient Benedictine way, harking back to a time when many more people lived a life of prayer than in today’s secular world; and
  • each can be reflected on.  Why do we want Jesus to come to us? What do we want him to do? What do we need him to do?

Whether it is in beautiful choral settings, the well known paraphrase of the Advent carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, or reciting the words at a service of said Evening Prayer (Evensaid?), they form a striking, poetic reminder of God’s greatness, the need to praise him, and the need to call to him to come to us.