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Praying the “O Antiphons” of Advent

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As quickly as the Advent Season came upon us, it now quickly draws to a close. Beginning tomorrow, we turn the homestretch, as it were, to the birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ on Christmas. Over the course of the past few weeks, we have reflected upon the nature of the Advent Season, how it is that we ought to prepare for the birth of the Savior, and prayed that God might give us the virtue to persevere in this preparation. And all of this so that His arrival might not steal upon us unawares as the five foolish virgins in Our Lord’s parable, who having missed His coming, stand at the door where the Lamb’s wedding feast was taking place, pleading to the Bridegroom from outside, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” and here the dreaded response, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:11-12).

But who were those virgins that were prepared? Who were the five who, quite evidently, Our Lord, the Bridegroom, does know? They were those who had prepared, those who had not squandered what they had acquired, but used virtuously. Our Lord uses one word consistently to describe the five virgins who were prepared for His coming. Normally, the word is translated as wise. And this is not an improper translation, for reasons which will become more clear tomorrow. However, the Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel is phronimoi, from the root word phronéō, meaning simply “to think.” Aristotle would give this word the connotation that it now carries today among moral philosophers and theologians. For Aristotle, phronêsis is practical thinking, or practical wisdom. Quite often, phronêsis is associated with the virtue of prudence, which is the virtue which perfects the intellect or reason, specifically in practical matters (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 47.2).

This is precisely the virtue on display in the five virgins who were prepared for the arrival of the Bridegroom. Unlike the five foolish virgins, the five prudent or wise virgins initially brought extra oil, just in case something unexpected happened, such as the Bridegroom being delayed in arriving (Matthew 25:4-5). Moreover, they stayed the course when their imprudent colleagues begged them to share some of the oil they had left through their prudent preparation. No, the prudent virgins tell the imprudent, if we give you some of ours, we may not complete the journey to the wedding feast (Matthew 25:9).

We have done our best to imitate these prudent virgins throughout this Season of Advent. From the very first Sunday, we have committed ourselves to intentionally avoiding the hustle and bustle that is normally foisted upon this Liturgical Season by the time and place which we live, satisfied as it is to spend the time without any thought for the coming of the Savior and instead to allow the Season to be consumed with commercial concerns and continual celebration. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with maintaining a joyful air throughout this Season. That said, anything truly beautiful, truly glorious and wonderful, contains an element of seriousness to it and ought to be reverenced. When it comes to the Season of Advent, reverence is expressed through prudence, i.e., through giving ourselves over to the seriousness of this Season by making the preparations we can for the birth of Our Savior.

We have done this through acts of penitence, including availing ourselves of the sacrament of the same name, having recognized that we are not as we ought to be and that if there is to be room for the Savior’s arrival, excesses and vices that have crept into our lives must be stripped away. To this has been added prayer, making special use of the Advent Wreath sacramental given to us by the Church, prayerfully lighting another candle each week as we make our journey out of the darkness of sin and death into the Light of Life (John 1:4). All of this has been done so that Our Savior might recognize us upon His arrival, but also so that we might recognize Him for Who He Is, the Son of God Incarnate, the Savior the world continually stands in so desperate need of this side of eternity.

But our preparations are not over just yet. For the next 7 days leading up to Christmas Eve, the Church compels us to consider still more intensely what the birth of Christ means for us. One of the ways the Church does this is by asking us to prayerfully consider what are known as the “O Antiphons” of Advent.

The “O Antiphons” of Advent trace their origins to the Liber Responsalis attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great, whose papacy span the years 590 to 604 AD (Allen Cabannis, “A Jewish Provenience of the Advent Antiphons?”, The Jewish Quarterly 66.1, 40). So, we are talking about a very ancient and venerable tradition of prayer in the life of the Church. Each of the antiphons has a twofold interrelated connotation. First, each antiphon is a title of the Messiah, and second, each denotes the fulfillment of one of Isaiah’s prophecies. They are so called the “O Antiphons” because they each begin with “O”, e.g., “O Wisdom” (December 17th) and “O Emmanuel” (December 23rd). They so begin, according to the 9th century liturgist, Amalarius of Metz (775-850 AD), because “O” is an exclamation “made by a person aroused to wonderment” (De ordine antiphonarii, 13). And so, by incorporating the “O Antiphons” into her life of worship, the Church is trying to instill upon us a sense of awe and amazement, that the one so long expected and yearned for by the human family has finally arrived amidst chaos and disorder to set God’s good creation aright.

Yet, the purpose of evoking a sense of wonder from us would be moot if said emotional response did not lead to some concrete response. In order to see that this is the Church’s aim, we need look no further than the liturgical setting in which the “O Antiphons” of Advent are prayed. From December 17th to the 23rd, the “O Antiphons” of Advent are used in the prayer of the Church in two distinct places. First, parts of the “O Antiphons” are sung as part of the Alleluia that immediately precedes the reading of the Gospel at Mass. In addition, the “O Antiphons” are prayed as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary, or, the Magnificat, in Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. Such situation, of course, makes perfect sense. For, it is in the Gospel that we hear proclaimed the Good News of the Messiah, the Son of God Incarnate, whose coming the Prophet Isaiah predicted and whose characteristics the derived “O Antiphons” describe. Moreover, by praying the “O Antiphons” together with Mary’s Magnificat, we too proclaim the greatness of the coming Messiah, who Mary, in a most unique way, made room in her life for. However, it is when we put these two liturgical loci together that we come to an understanding of how these most august refrains are to impact our lives concretely.  

Mary, among all other mothers, conceived Christ within her womb in a completely unique way. Not through the physical union of male and female did Mary conceive Christ. Rather, Mary conceived Christ through her yes, her fiat. “The Church Fathers sometimes expressed this by saying that Mary conceived through her ear—that is to say: through her hearing. Through her obedience, the Word entered into her and became fruitful in her” (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 36). We are meant to spiritually imitate Mary in this. This is precisely what St. Augustine exhorts us to:

So then, because Christ is truth and peace and justice, conceive him in faith, give birth to him in works, so that what Mary’s womb did for the flesh of Christ, your hearts may do for Christ’s law” (Sermon 192.2).

Over the course of the next seven days, we will be releasing reflections on the “O Antiphons” of Advent in order to prudently prepare for the birth of the Savior, spiritually trimming our wicks, as it were, by listening more attentively to these inspired words which so eloquently proclaim the life of the coming Messiah. Who is He? What is the meaning and purpose of His Incarnation? What impact will He have in our lives if we remain open to His influence as Mary once was? Join us in prayerfully considering the beautiful “O Antiphons” of Advent, so that when Christmas comes, like Mary, we too will be ready to give birth to Christ in our lives, and release the saving love of God into our world.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

One thought on “Praying the “O Antiphons” of Advent

  1. I am very much looking forward to the “O Antiphons” of Advent to prepare us for Our Lord’s birth.

    Thanks so much, Tony, for doing this so we can be ready like the five prudent virgins!

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