It was only recently that I learned that one of my favorite songs at Christmas is not technically a Christmas song at all. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is in fact an Advent song. I had first heard about the “O Antiphons” a few years ago but didn’t know a lot about them. It turns out that they are tied to one of my favorite songs.
The seven traditional “O Antiphons” are actually more than a thousand years old. Their exact origin is not known but the 6th century Italian philosopher Boethius (480-524) made a slight reference to them which suggests their presence at that time. By the eighth century they were in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. They have long been used at the very end of Advent (December 17-23) in the liturgical prayer of the Church. During Vespers (aka Evening Prayer) the “Magnificat” of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) is sung or recited each night, preceded by an antiphon which is defined as a “short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle.” In the tradition of Vespers the Magnificat is known as the Canticle of Mary.
And so, during Vespers beginning on December 17 seven days before the Vigil of Christmas on December 24, and as the final phase of preparation for Christmas, the Church recites or chants the “O Antiphons” as fervent prayers asking Our Lord to come to us.
Fr. William Saunders writes:
The importance of the “O Antiphons” is twofold. First, each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. The O Antiphons express the Church’s longing and expectation for the Messiah, her startled wonderment at the fullness of grace which the Christ-Child is about to bestow on the world. Their theme is the majesty of the Savior, His wisdom, His faithfulness and sanctity, His justice and mercy, His covenant with His chosen people, who in their ingratitude broke faith with Him. They are concerned with His power and love as King and Redeemer of the world, His relation to every soul as Emmanuel, God-with-us.
According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
Recall that the word Advent is from the Latin Adventus, which means “coming.”
The song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is simply a reworking of the seven “O Antiphons”. When you sing its lyrics you are joining yourself to a vast throng of Christians stretching back across the centuries and spanning the whole of the earth who prayed as all Christians do: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
From December 17th through the 23rd I will be posting each day on these ancient antiphons. Time permitting they will include a short reflection for each day that I’ll be using as a part of my preparation for Christmas.