In the final week of Advent our attention is fixed on the messianic promises proclaimed by the ancient prophets of Israel. A distinctive feature of the Liturgy of the Hours in this week preceding the Christmas vigil is the antiphon sung at Vespers (evening prayer) before and after the recitation of the Magnificat.
Originally incorporated into the monastic office in the Middle Ages, these antiphons, often called the "Greater Antiphons" or the "O Antiphons", are also echoed in the daily lectionary as the verse for the gospel acclamation during this week. They add a mood of eager expectation to the liturgy that builds throughout these seven days and climaxes at Christmas.
The O Antiphons have been described as "a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God". They "create a poetry that fills the liturgy with its splendor", and their composer shows "a magnificent command of the Bible's wealth of motifs".
The antiphons are, in fact, a collage of Old Testament types of Christ. Their predominant theme is messianic, stressing the hope of the Savior's coming. Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah. The sequence progresses historically, from the beginning, before creation, to the very gates of Bethlehem.
In their structure, each of the seven antiphons follows the same pattern, resembling a traditional liturgical prayer. Each O Antiphon begins with an invocation of the expected Messiah, followed by praise of him under one of his particular titles. Each ends with a petition for God's people, relevant to the title by which he is addressed, and the cry for him to "Come".
The seven titles attributed to Jesus in the antiphons are Wisdom (Sapientia in Latin), Ruler of the House of Israel (Adonai), Root of Jesse (Radix), Key of David (Clavis), Rising Dawn (Oriens), King of the Gentiles (Rex). and Emmanuel. In Latin the initials of the titles make an acrostic which, when read backwards. means: "Tomorrow I will be there" ("Ero cras"). To the medieval mind this was clearly a reference to the approaching Christmas vigil.
Today the O Antiphons are most familiar to us in the hymn "O come, O come Emmanuel". Each verse of the hymn parallels one of the antiphons. In addition to their use in the Liturgy of the Hours and the gospel acclamation, they have been popularly incorporated into church devotions and family prayer.
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On Monday, I joined the retired bishops and priests resident at the John Paul II Residence for Mass together (the feast of St. John of the Cross explains the white vestments).
The Sisters of Charity strive to make the retirement facility a real home and they succeed admirably.
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Sunday's Open House/Portes Ouvertes from 2-4PM (at the Archbishop's Residence, 143 St. Patrick (behind the Cathedral: enter by the glass doors at the far end of the parking lot, corner of St. Patrick Street and Parent Avenue)
In my first two years in Ottawa, I maintained the practice I had experienced in Halifax of a New Year's Levee but on the nearest Sunday, which was the feast of the Epiphany. To encourage families to take part, children were invited to dress as kings and queens or princes and princesses. Each was a wonderful occasion.
This year, with Christmas on a Friday, it was felt the Fourth Sunday of Advent might allow different people freedom to come out. Children are invited to dress as shepherds ready to greet the Christ Child, but if they come as wise men or princesses they will be most welcome (even "wise guys" can come!) We can exchange greetings for Christmas and the New Year.