The O Antiphons

O Antiphons

Don't look now, but Christmas is coming.

Just last week, before I could tear it up, my kids tore through Target's holiday toy catalog. And this weekend, they admired Hallmark's Christmas display while we waited for our movie to begin. It's not even Halloween yet.

Preparing for Christmas

Certainly, Christmas is worth preparing for. Alongside Good Friday and Easter, Christmas is the most important holiday for the faith of the Christian. There is no gospel without the Incarnation. To borrow from Paul, "If Christ is not God-made-flesh, then we are of all men most to be pitied." 

But it's increasingly hard to appreciate Christmas as a Christian. Far more than Good Friday and Easter, Christmas has been colonized by secular society. Remembering Jesus at Christmas requires me to set aside focused time, but most of my focused time is spent gift-buying and event-planning. I forget who and what I'm celebrating.

The church has traditionally set aside time to prepare herself for Christmas with the season of Advent. In the month leading up to Christmas, Advent invites us to reimagine what life was like before Christ. During this season, we remember the timing of Jesus' First Coming--how only after a long darkness did God send a Savior. In that remembering, we recognize our need for Jesus' Second and Final Coming.

Over two millennia, the church has creatively engaged in all kinds of ritual to drive home the truth of Christmas in the heart of the faithful, from midnight mass to candlelight services. One of the oldest Christmas liturgies is the O Antiphons.

O Antiphons

By the sixth century, the early church had developed a custom of reciting seven prayers together in the seven days before Christmas. These seven prayers call on Christ using seven titles or metaphors used of him in the Old Testament. These metaphors reflect our deepest needs and longings. They are

  • O Wisdom
  • O Adonai ("Lord")
  • O Root of Jesse
  • O Key of David
  • O Morningstar
  • O King of the Nations
  • O Immanuel

Each prayer is just four lines, beginning with the title and ending with a call for Jesus to come. They're called antiphons because they are read "antiphonally", or opposite, Mary's Magnificat. Cool fact: in Latin, the poems form a backward acrostic which translates, "He comes tomorrow." It's also where the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel comes from.

I love the way Malcolm Guite describes their place in Advent

"The whole purpose of Advent is to be for a moment fully and consciously Before Christ. In that place of darkness and waiting, we look for his coming and do not presume too much that we already know or have it. Whoever compiled these prayers was able, imaginatively, to write 'BC', perhaps saying to themselves: 'If I hadn't heard of Christ, and didn't know the name of Jesus, I would still long for a savior. I would still need someone to come. Who would I need? I would need a gift of Wisdom, I would need a Light, a King, a Root, a Key, a Flame.' And poring over the pages of the Old Testament, they would find all these things promised in the coming of Christ. By calling on Christ using each of these seven several gifts and prophecies we learn afresh the meaning of a perhaps too familiar name."

A New Sermon Series

Our culture doesn't afford us the freedom to gather as a church the seven nights before Christmas. So, Citizens is going to stretch these seven prayers out over seven weeks, focusing on the Old Testament Book of Isaiah.

Maybe by extending Advent, we'll give our souls the extra space they need to truly prepare for Christmas. Won't you join us? 

Dave Ainsworth