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The "O Antiphons" Our History and Our Hope

By Joyce Stolberg

As we prepare to commemorate the marvelous birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas, we identify with the ancient people of Israel who were the first to await the coming of a Messiah. Catholics and some Protestant denominations observe a time of preparation for Christmas as a season of prayer and expectation known as Advent. We enter into the Israelites’ yearning and actually BECOME the people awaiting the Promised One, yet with the hindsight of knowing that he has already come and how it happened. As we celebrate the season of Advent during the four weeks prior to Christmas, we journey through the whole history of the Israelite people and of all humankind, from the beginning of Creation until the time immediately prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. We experience the grace of Christ present in our lives as we strive to become kinder, gentler, and more conformed to the manner in which Jesus taught us to live. We also taste their ardent yearning as we look forward to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.

An antiphon is a short verse sung before and after a psalm during the “Prayer of the Hours,” the official prayer of the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal and possibly other Churches. Since the very early formation of the Church's liturgy, the “O Antiphons” have traditionally been sung at Vespers, the evening prayer, before and after the “Magnificat” on the last seven days before Christmas, December 17-23. Please note here that the evening prayer marks the beginning of the following day: for example, December 23 Vespers begins the vigil, which is Christmas Eve. These antiphons are also incorporated into the Liturgy of the Word of the daily Catholic Mass, sung immediately preceding the reading of the holy Gospel.

When you write a thesis or a court document, you recapitulate your ideas at the end in a concise summary. You might call the "O Antiphons" a concise summary that encapsulates the whole history of the Israelite people and the hope for the coming of the Messiah that defined them. The "O Antiphons" express and compress the longing and yearning of the whole human race for the coming of Jesus Christ our Savior. They also give voice to our hope for a world in which the love of Christ will bring peace and justice for all people. The vivid imagery they evoke, the references to Israelite history and the words of the ancient prophets, and the haunting melodies sung in expressive undulating Gregorian rhythm attune our hearts to the imminent coming of the Savior at Christmas. Each antiphon contains a prayer of praise, followed by an ardent prayer of petition. We might note here that the popular song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is directly derived from the classic “O Antiphons” and places them in a more contemporary style. We will refer to all seven verses of this song today.

Keep in mind as we consider these antiphons that the Bible is written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These texts contain certain meanings pertaining directly to Israelite history and they also contain a more profound layer of meaning, which can only be comprehended in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man. Scriptures, from which the “O Antiphons” derived, prophesied events in Israelite history, foretold the coming of Christ, God become man, in the fullness of time, and also anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ as the Great Judge at the end of human history. We will take a look at each Antiphon with a view to appreciating these strata. We will look at the books of Sacred Scripture that refer to and describe the era represented by each antiphon. We will also look at readings, primarily from Isaiah and some of the other prophets that are read during Advent; these contain the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ. We will appreciate the richly layered meanings contained in these prophecies. We must keep in mind two most basic doctrines that frame Christianity: the Trinity – there are three divine Persons in One God – and the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of Jesus Christ. These concepts add a Christian dimension that is not innate in the Jewish mind set.

Let us now look at each individual "O Antiphon" and see how it fits into the Israelite history and into our hope for a better world united under Christ the King.

December 17

O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence!

(English Translation from old Breviary)

Creation, Prehistory: Indefinite Time

This antiphon transports us back to the very beginning of created time. We become present with the Spirit of God hovering over Creation (Genesis1:1-31). We can almost see the superheated, swirling elements settling down to form the dry land and the watery oceans. Then God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden. References include excerpts from the Psalms (Psalms 8, 104) and the Wisdom Literature.

Genesis 1-4

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,

the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness.

Psalm 104

Bless the LORD, my soul! LORD, my God, you are great indeed! You are clothed with majesty and glory, robed in light as with a cloak. You spread out the heavens like a tent;

you raised your palace upon the waters. You make the clouds your chariot; you travel on the wings of the wind. You make the winds your messengers; flaming fire, your ministers.

You fixed the earth on its foundation, never to be moved. The ocean covered it like a garment; above the mountains stood the waters.

Christians and Jews hold in common the story of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. We amble through the pristine garden, then heave a sigh as Adam and Eve reject God's friendship. Then God turns and promises them a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15). This is the first of God's promises to remain with and not abandon his people. In the New Testament literature we see numerous references in St. Paul's epistles to Christ as the new Adam (Romans 5:15-18; 1 Cor. 15:21, 22). In Revelation we see Mary as the new Eve (Rev. 12:1-6). Ultimately, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. Ch. 21, 22).

Whether we give these chapters a literal or a literary interpretation, we marvel at God's creation of humankind in immaculate splendor, and we are saddened as we see our first parents reject the grace and favors of God for themselves and all their descendents. We wonder what that state of innocence was like, and what primordial sin could have been so compelling that God removed Adam and Eve from Paradise. Yet God had a Plan B for the human race. The immense journey from the creation and fall of humankind to the fullness of time when God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to earth for our Salvation is compressed in the rest of the “O Antiphons.”

December 18

O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him your law. Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!

Circa 1350 to 1250 BC (Sources vary slightly)

We fast-forward here to the image of Moses leading the people out of Egypt, passing through the Red Sea and into the desert of Sinai. Using signs and wonders, almighty Yahweh himself redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus was the great defining saving act of God; it freed the Israelites from slavery and enabled God to form them into a people of his own. Here in the desert, through trials and privations, God forged a new people out of a scattered cacophonous group of slaves, over a period of 40 years and across two generations.

Deuteronomy Chapter 5

Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and decrees which I proclaim in your hearing this day, that you may learn them and take care to observe them.

The LORD, our God, made a covenant with us at Horeb; not with our fathers did he make this covenant, but with us, all of us who are alive here this day.

The LORD spoke with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire.

We see, in Exodus, chapters19 and 20, God giving Moses the Ten Commandments amid fire, thunder, smoke and lightning. This text, ratified in Deuteronomy, chapter 5, describes a theophany, or a manifestation of God in all his great power and majesty. Here, God called one remnant of the children of Adam and Eve, and assembled them as a covenant people, peculiarly his own.

Codes of law had already been given to the people by wise rulers such as Hammurabi. Here, while similarities exist, the Law of Moses comprised the revealed word of God, the great Lord of lords, and it contained the terms or rules of the covenant between God and his people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us his new law of love, and new, refined rules for living as his people (Matt 5:1-12).

December 19

O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to you all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay.

Circa 1100 to 1000 BC

Overflowing with love, tenderness, and fidelity, the Book of Ruth might be the best love story ever written. It connects the rough-and-tumble history of the conquest and the judges with the more settled, prosperous kingdoms of David and Solomon. Elimelech, Naomi and their sons left Bethlehem and journeyed to Moab because of a famine. Their sons married Moabite women; then Elimelech and both sons died. Ruth followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem where she caught the eye of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Note that the person who married the widow of a late relative (in this case, a daughter-in-law) was called her “goal” or "redeemer" (Dt. 25:5-6).

Ruth 4:9,10

Boaz then said to the elders and to all the people, "You are witnesses today that I have acquired from Naomi all the holdings of Elimelech, Chilion and Mahlon.

I also take Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, as my wife, in order to raise up a family for her late husband on his estate, so that the name of the departed may not perish among his kinsmen and fellow citizens. Do you witness this today?"

Boaz married Ruth and became the father of Obed who became the father of Jesse, the father of David. It was to David, Jesse’s youngest son, anointed king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-13), that God promised a descendent would always sit on his throne (2 Sam. 7:8-17). Hence Jesus Christ, the descendent of King David, was the flower that sprouted from the stump of Jesse. Jesus Christ is the Redeemer who saved all humankind.

The Latin form of this antiphon reads "Radix" or Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Today's English variously translates this as "root" or "shoot," or sometimes "flower." The correct meaning is offshoot or offspring. Jesus was definitely the finest flower on a branch of the family tree of David and of Ruth. Therefore "shoot" or "flower" is closer to the true meaning than "root.” However, placing elaborate musical notation on the "O" followed by "shoot" somehow fails to convey a solemn attitude in English! The hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel uses the term "Rod of Jesse". In your leisure time, read the book of Ruth. With only four chapters, it is as short as it is sweet.

December 20

O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and no man closes; You close and no man opens.
Come, and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Circa 1000 to 587 BC

While the Exodus was the great saving event that formed the Israelite people, the kingships of David and Solomon marked the climax, or the "golden age" of their kingdom. God's promise to David through Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 7:8-17) that there would always be an heir to sit on his throne meant that a reigning descendent of David became the sign, or the affirmation, of God's covenant with his people.

2 Samuel 7:16

Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.

After Solomon’s death, the kingdom became divided. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, often led by their kings, sinned time and again through their failure to worship the Lord and through turning to the gods of the surrounding Canaanites. When King Ahaz of Judah trembled in fear of the Assyrians, God promised that his "intended" or his young bride-to-be (the virgin) would bear a son. This son became “Immanuel,” God's sign and assurance that the covenant would be kept and the kingdom would go on (Is. 7:11-16). Hezekiah, the son, would reform and save Judah. Christians see in this prophesy God's promise that he would send his own Son, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Micah prophesied that the king would come from Bethlehem – that is – he would be of the House of David (Micah 5:1-4).

Isaiah 7: 11- 16

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, "I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!"

Then he said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

He shall be living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good. For before the child learns to reject the bad and choose the good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.

If the king broke the covenant by worshiping false gods, then God broke his rule over the people by selecting another king, but always a descendent of David. Isaiah 22:20-24 describes just such an incident. God took the "Key of David" away from the unfaithful master of the palace, Shebna and gave it to Eliakim. The "Key of the House of David" was the symbol of the authority and responsibility of his ancestor, David.

December 21

O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

587 BC to 538 BC

Has God abandoned his people? Has Salvation History come to an end? The longest darkest night of ancient Jewish history would severely test the faith of the people in Yahweh. The northern kingdom, Israel, had succumbed to the invasion of the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Thanks to Hezekiah's trust in the Lord, the southern kingdom, Judah, had been spared. It is now 587 BC, and King Zedekiah, along with the whole nation, had been unfaithful to the Lord. Idol worship and sins against the Commandments had become so rampant that God could no longer remain silent. The Jewish people were conquered and carried off as captives to Babylon. For 70 years -- a mystical number here -- the land would languish in ruins until it recovered its lost sabbaths. There was no king, no sign of God's favor. It would take another two generations for the Lord to re-form a people and re-gather a remnant cleansed of sin and faithful to his Covenant. Yet even as the people were dragged off into exile, God was promising redemption through the mouths of his prophets. Ezekiel envisioned the glory of her rebuilt temple even as it lay in ruins (Ezekiel chapters 40-47).

After the long dark night of exile and purification, the Lord anointed an unlikely hero to redeem the Israelites and send them back to their land. This was King Cyrus of Persia, who, without knowing the Lord, did his bidding and became his instrument of liberation. He defeated the Babylonians and sent the Israelites home with all the treasures of the temple that had been confiscated. Isaiah called King Cyrus, who was a foreigner and a pagan, the Anointed of the Lord. King Cyrus is the rising dawn from the East that dispels the long dark night of the Jew's exile (Isaiah 45:1-9).

Isaiah Chapter 45:1 -5

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, Subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, Opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: I will go before you and level the mountains; Bronze doors I will shatter, and iron bars I will snap.

I will give you treasures out of the darkness, and riches that have been hidden away, That you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not.

I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, ...

As Christians, we celebrate the coming of Christ, the Light of the World, the Anointed One, who dispelled the darkness of sin and of Satan's reign. See Zachariah’s canticle (Luke 1:78). This antiphon is sung, for us in the northern hemisphere, on the darkest day of the year. The light, mercy and hope brought to us through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ would dispel the darkness of cruelty and despair, creating the new culture of the Kingdom of God on earth. His death on the cross would be the death of Satan’s reign.

December 22

O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save poor man whom you fashioned out of clay.

538 BC to 63 BC

Though characterized by triumph and jubilation, this homecoming involved hard work and disappointment, and was accompanied by great hardship. The returning exiles were led by governors, scribes and priests. The reconstruction was initially supported by Cyrus of Persia and his successors; but persecution broke out later under Greek domination. Hence a longing for a Messiah or a Redeemer took the form of yearning for a single great king, who would liberate and govern the ideal kingdom, reuniting both Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 37:15-22). This king would be a powerful descendent of David, and the new Anointed One.

Ezekiel Chapter 37: 15-20

Thus the word of the LORD came to me:

Now, son of man, take a single stick, and write on it: Judah and those Israelites who are associated with him. Then take another stick and write on it: Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.

Then join the two sticks together, so that they form one stick in your hand. When your countrymen ask you, "Will you not tell us what you mean by all this?",

answer them: Thus says the Lord GOD: (I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and of the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will join to it the stick of Judah, making them a single stick; they shall be one in my hand. The sticks on which you write you shall hold up before them to see.

Tell them: Thus speaks the Lord GOD: "I will take the Israelites from among the nations to which they have come, and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land."

There were no strong dominating prophets: at this point in its history, you could call Israel a "non-prophet" organization. The yearning for a return to the "golden age" of the Davidic Kingdom under one strong unifying figure would never happen. There would be no Messiah, no Redeemer, at this juncture in history. The Israelites won their freedom briefly under the leadership of the courageous Maccabees.

Some books were written during this time, including the Wisdom Literature, parts of Daniel, stories about Judith and Esther, and I and II Maccabees. Depending on your Bible, these may be called the "deuterocanonical books" or the "apocrypha." Regardless of their official status, they are very inspirational books.

We see Christ as the King of Kings, the Holy Anointed One and the definitive ruler who would unite the world in peace, and teach us how to live with a sense of justice, in right relationships with one another and with God. Jesus is the ultimate Messiah, the Anointed One, and the ultimate Cornerstone uniting all people. He would be the Son of God and the son of David, and he would sit on the throne of David forever. But his Kingdom would not be of this world.

December 23

O Emanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Savior: Come, and save us, O Lord our God!

63 BC to Christian Era; End of Time – Climax of Human History

After a scant century of self-rule, the Israelites again lost their freedom to the conquering Romans in 63 BC. At that time Rome permitted the worship of the native people in outlying provinces, and established an uneasy peace throughout the Empire; therefore their rule was somewhat more tolerable than the earlier Greek regime. Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees provided spiritual leadership, while the Roman Empire assigned local secular governors and patrolled with occupying forces. Nevertheless the yearning for a political Messiah, who would lead an uprising and free the people from Roman rule, then sit on the throne of David, reached a fever pitch in the years surrounding the birth of Christ. Political factions abounded and a sense of restless expectation permeated the land. We can see this all through the Gospels.

Luke 1: 26-33

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary.

And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.

He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

mmanuel means "God with us." The Messiah comes! The Messiah would be much more than the sign of God’s presence; he would BE God’s presence. In the midst of all this expectation of a political "anointed one" who would free Israel from foreign domination, the Spirit of Wisdom from on high overshadowed a young virgin who was engaged to an heir of the house of David named Joseph (Luke 1:26-38). She was Joseph’s "intended" or his young bride-to-be, pregnant by the Holy Spirit with the Son of God, the Holy One, the true Emmanuel, God-with-us (Matt. 1:23-25). The great and wondrous Lawgiver, Adonai -- the great Lord who seated David upon the throne -- raised up a righteous shoot from the discarded stump of Jesse. He sent his own divine Son to earth to become a human being. The Child we worship at Christmas is David’s son, yet David’s Lord (Matt. 22: 41-46; Mark 12:35-37). He literally dwells with us and is one of us. He is the true Rising Dawn, or Dayspring, (Luke 1:78-79) the true and lasting splendor of Light everlasting who dispelled the darkness of sin cast by Satan over the whole human race. He is the Cornerstone and King who unites all nations of the earth in the new People of God, the spiritual body of believers.

We linger, elated with the Babe in Bethlehem; but that is only one phase of Christ’s Paschal mystery. Jesus grew to manhood, preached love and forgiveness, and trained his apostles. Even as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowds who acclaimed him (Matt. 21:9) were anticipating a political king. Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits forever at God’s right hand. Because Jesus partook of our human condition, God the Father has assigned him the role of Judge of all humankind.

Christ’s kingdom is twofold. Jesus established his kingdom on earth: Christian society itself is kinder and gentler and our sensitivity toward social justice is the fruit of following his teachings. Our lives are made meaningful by the blessed hope of life everlasting with Christ in the kingdom of heaven, and the hope of being raised up, body and soul, to share all eternity with him in the new Eden, which is heaven.

The Great Assembly of the children of Adam and Eve, which gathered at the foot of Mt. Horeb, and which now constitutes the Body of Christ's People on earth will reach completion in the Great Assembly gathered before the throne of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 7:1-17).

Our hope is not for an earthly kingdom: our hope is for a share in the glory of the eternal heavenly kingdom, without end, forever!

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