The Great Antiphons of Advent
For the uninitiated, the 'O' antiphons are short verses sung before and after the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary, at Vespers in the week before Christmas. Full of Old Testament imagery, the verses reflect on the Coming of Christ, the Saviour, call on Him by His Divine Attributes and Names and express a longing for salvation and His appearing. These verses are probably most well-known in the form of the hymn, 'O come, o come Emmanuel' which is actually J.M. Neale's excellent paraphrase of these 'O' antiphons.
In these days before these antiphons are sung, I should like to offer reflections on the antiphons in general and rely on fr Preston for the following:
"In the Great Antiphons of Advent, we turn to Christ with the longing expressed in the O itself. This longing is the groaning of the Holy Spirit in us when we do not know how to pray, when we have no other words than this primordial word so close to the roots of our western experience. For our O is strictly comparible to the Hindu OM, the mystic syllable in that other part of our Indo-European tradition, the OM beyond which there vibrates that absolutely primordial and eternal unheard sound which is itself the first Cause of the universe. The Advent Os of the Christian West go back at least to the eighth century, to those ages that we somewhat inaccurately, yet appropriately in this context, call 'dark'. From the dark ages men have called out to the Messiah to come... We too as we sing these antiphons stand in the dark ages, vergente mundi vespere as the Office Hymn puts it, as earth draws near its evening hour... So we pray for him to come at either end of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. We put all we have into that praying. In the monastic tradition it is surrounded by all the wealth of ceremonial of which the brethren are capable... In monasteries the abbot himself in full pontifical vestments comes and stands before the great pulpit in the midst of the choir and intones O Sapientiae. Night after night the senior members of the community in full vestments come out to take up the cry to the Messiah. The bells of the monastery sound throughout the singing of the Magnificat, sung as it is to the most solemn chant in the book. All that the community has to show for itself, all by which it might cut something of a figure in the world, is wheeled on; and it sings 'O come!'"