Adventures in Liturgy by Edward Murray (Music Director)
Most of us are probably acquainted with the famous Advent hymn O come, o come, Emmanuel. Fewer are likely to have sung all of the seven verses of the hymn, as we did during the bilingual service of healing on November 29, the first Sunday of Advent. Although hardly surprising, this is a pity, as they are very beautiful. They are based on an ancient series of Latin liturgical responses known as the “O” Antiphons.
In the Latin monastic liturgy, the Magnificat (Song of Mary) is sung daily at Vespers. A short response, known as an antiphon, is sung at the beginning and end of the Magnificat. The Magnificat antiphons for December 17-23 form a series, each of which contains a different name for the coming Christ, and each beginning with the word “O”, hence their popular title.
There is something a bit mysterious and very compelling about them:
December 17: O wisdom, coming forth from the Most High, filling all creation and reigning to the ends of the earth; come and teach us the way of truth.
December 18: O Lord of Lords, and ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and gave him the law on Sinai: come with your outstretched arm and
December 19: O root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the nations; kings will keep silence before you for whom the nations long; come and save us and delay no longer.
December 20: O key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and none can shut; you shut and none can open: come and free the captives from prison, and break down the walls of death.
December 21: O morning star, splendor of the light eternal and bright sun of righteousness: come and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and walk in the shadow of death.
December 22: O king of the nations, you alone can fulfill their desires: cornerstone, binding all together: come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust of the earth.
December 23: O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, hope of the nations and their savior: come and save us, O Lord our God.
In her wonderful book The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris writes of the experience of singing one of the O Antiphons with the sisters at Mount St. Mary’s Brentwood campus here in Los Angeles. A vivid excerpt:
…one of the women asked if I’d like to first take a brief hike further up the mountain, past the convent and onto the fire road … Soon we could see, far below us, a small section of what she told me was the Santa Monica freeway. Then we left the traces of civilization behind … We never made it to the summit, because at one turn we encountered two coyotes, a male and a female. We stared at them, and they at us, and then they slipped away, down the hill. … I was overcome with the wonder of having come all the way from western South Dakota, via Minnesota, only to find myself alone with coyotes in Los Angeles…