Monday, December 17, 2012

The “O” Antiphons of Advent


“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.” Isaiah 11:1-2

In response to the Scriptural exhortation to “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thess. 5:17) the ancient Church developed the Canonical Hours – fixed hours of prayer at which Scripture would be read and Psalms would be sung. From about the 4th century on, these hours, in the West have traditionally followed this order: Matins (midnight), Lauds (3 a.m.), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (noon), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (6 p.m.), and Compline (9 p.m.).

As you can well imagine, this was an extremely difficult and challenging discipline to maintain; only the monks, nuns, and some clergy were very successful at it. Sensing the value of such disciplined daily prayer, however, Martin Luther did not wish to abolish the Hours but simply to condense them into the more manageable and recognizable Hours of Matins (morning prayer) and Vespers (evening prayer). To this day, these Hours of daily prayer are a part of our tradition and piety.

As we begin a new Church Year with the season of Advent, I thought it appropriate to share with you an especially beautiful and poignant part of our catholic tradition which has become all but forgotten amongst Lutheran Christians, The “O” Antiphons. Traditionally, the last eight days of Advent form a little liturgical season unto themselves. As the Church prepares to celebrate the birthday of Christ, the liturgy gets somewhat more intense, freighted with all the hopes of an expectant church.

The “O” Antiphons are a series of “Holy Titles” for Christ by which the Church calls on Him to come. Beginning at Vespers on December 17, each night gives him a new name: “O Wisdom,” “O Sacred Lord,” “O Flower of Jesse’s Stem,” “O Key of David,” “O Radiant Dawn,” “O King of All the Nations,” and the greatest of them all, “O Emmanuel,” a name which means “God is with us.” The great and wonderful Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (LW 31) is based upon The “O” Antiphons – check the seven titles against this hymn’s seven verses.

An antiphon is a small portion of a Psalm, or some other appropriate words, which is sung at the beginning and at the end of a Psalm or a canticle. The “O” Antiphons were sung specifically before and after the Magnificat (Mary’s Song) during the Hour of Vespers the last week of Advent. These seven Holy Titles for Jesus are appropriate “book ends” to Mary’s beautiful and reverent hymn of praise.

As The “O” Antiphons were originally sung in Latin, when considering the Latin titles an interesting acrostic (word puzzle) appears. When the Latin titles are arranged last to first and the first letter of each title is read consecutively, Christ’s answer to the cry of His Church “Come” is revealed: “Ero cras,” which means, “I shall, tomorrow.”

Emmanuel                  Emmanuel

Rex Gentium              King of the Nations

Oriens                          Dawn

Clavis David                Key of David

Radix Jesse                 Root of Jesse

Adonai                          Lord

Sapientia                      Wisdom


Ero cras. I shall, tomorrow.


“O Come, O come Emmanuel,” cries the Church. “I shall, tomorrow,” Jesus answers. And so, the Church awaits. Waiting is what Advent is all about. Even as we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, we await, looking expectantly for His second coming. And as we await, we prepare by repenting of our sins and receiving holy absolution, by remaining in His Word, and by receiving His body and blood. The Bride, the Church, awaits and looks expectantly for the coming of Her Bridegroom – Her lamp in hand, she prepares and awaits.


“Come soon to save us,” cries the Church,

“From sin and death and sorrow.”

Our Lord’s reply is “Ero cras,”

Which means “I shall, tomorrow.”

The Lord Continue to bless you in the Peace that is Christ Jesus until He comes.

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