The O Antiphons: Advent Devotions

It’s been just over a year since I began this blog, my first post being on the Feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30th).  I have been pretty neglectful with updating it regularly, which is too bad because I am always grateful when I have the chance to write and reflect on some of things I enjoy posting, but in the summers I work full time as a student-assistant in a Parish and have now started at Seminary, so free-time is hard to find.

Some of my first significant entries here last year were a reminder of the real spiritual depth this time in the calendar brings us to. Too often, even in my own life growing up, we are taken up into the hub-bub excitement of the pre-Christmas preparations which really (sadly) begin in early November and carry through to December 25th, often with very little distinction between Advent and Christmas. Then, as quickly as it always seems to come upon us, Christmas ends with us laying immobile on our couches, too stuffed to move from the turkey dinner, remarking at how quickly another year has come and gone.

This neglects the important days of remembrance and celebration which follow Christmas, and prepare us for the Feast of the Epiphany and beyond.

But I’ve said that already. Here I wish to bring up a devotional practice which might be helpful for those observing Advent, and for those seeking to enter more deeply into what the Advent season is really all about.

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The

O

 (or, Great; Greater; Advent) Antiphons are short prayers in chant form used during the seven or eight days preceding Christmas Eve (16/17th-23rd).

The discrepancy in their starting date is due to an early 9th century addition by the scholar Amalarius of the final O Antiphon, O Virgo Virginum. This alteration was never added to the Roman Breviary and never became part of regular Roman Tradition, but was taken up into the Sarum Rite and thus found a place in English tradition. In England, as in the Book of Common Prayer the Calendar still marks the 16th as the beginning of this time of devotion.

The Antiphons can be a great help to our Advent devotions. They lead us towards the Nativity in those final days of Advent, each one of them looking back to the Old Testament prophecy of the coming Messiah. They remind us each day that Christ’s coming was already foretold and is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophecy.

In a liturgical context these would normally be sung (or said) before and after the Magnificat in Vespers or Evening Prayer; but I put it out there that strictly speaking they don’t need to be. Use them in devotion, recite them in the morning and the evening of each day–alongside other prayers or alone, you may even wish to make the old testament scripture from which these come your devotional reading for the day. Meditate on them or even just listen to them when you wake, carry them with you through the whole day and let them help prepare you for God’s coming into the world.

As you pray them, notice the beginning and the end of each. Notice that each title is a prophetic name ascribed to Christ, notice that each ends with a simple hope that looks forward to the coming incarnation. For example, see today’s O Sapientia (O Wisdom):

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

reaching from one end to the other,

mightily and sweetly ordering all things:

Come and teach us the way of prudence.

There is really so much more that can be said of these devotions but I’ll leave that for others. Below is a list of some articles and links which I have found beneficial this Advent season:

This article (which may require an account at academia.edu) gives a simple and brief historical background and some commentary on the O Antiphons themselves.

Burlin, Robert. The Old English Advent: A Typological Commentary. New Haven: Yale, 1968.

Old Testament prophecy found in the O Antiphons

Thurston, Herbert, “The Great Antiphons, Heralds of Christmas,” The Month, CVI (1905), 616-631.

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