Advent Through the Ages in Beloved Music
Music of the season today can connect Christians with the Church's living historical heritage.
As Christmas approaches, I always find myself connecting to the past, both my family’s history and beyond that to the more distant history of the church through the ages.
Perhaps I do that because the theme of Advent (the season of the church year that begins four Sundays before Christmas) is waiting for God to fulfill His promise to save His people. We think back to the centuries the people of Israel waited for the coming of the Messiah, and we look ahead to Jesus’ return and remember the centuries the church has longed for His coming. And pondering those long centuries of waiting gives me a feeling of connection with the past and makes me want to join in with the history and practices of those who like me are looking ahead in hope for Jesus’ return.
In this article, I’d like to introduce you to the O Antiphons, an Advent practice that goes back at least to the eighth century and possibly to the beginning of the sixth century or even earlier. An antiphon is a short response recited or sung during a church service after a Psalm or Canticle (i.e. a scriptural song not part of the Psalms). The O Antiphons were recited after the Magnificat (the Song of Mary, Luke 1:46-55) during the Vespers service (Evening Prayer) each evening from December 18 to December 24, the seven days preceding Christmas. One antiphon is recited each night. They are called the O Antiphons because each begins with “O,” followed by a name for the Messiah drawn from the book of Isaiah, supplemented with other Scriptures.
The O Antiphons are an acrostic. If you take the first letter of each of the names of the Messiah in the antiphons in order and then read it backwards, it forms the Latin words ero cras, which means “tomorrow, I will be [there].” Since the last antiphon is recited on Christmas Eve, the acrostic is a clever and subtle way of signaling the end of Advent and the arrival of the One predicted by Isaiah and the other prophets and described in the antiphons.
The O Antiphons are also the basis for the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The hymn was originally composed in Latin and was first published in the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum(Cologne, 1710). Only five of the seven antiphons were in the first edition; additional verses were added and in a hymnal in 1878 all seven antiphons were included.
A Latin version of the hymn was translated into English in 1844 by John Mason Neale. Since the final two verses had not yet been written, most versions of the hymn only have four or perhaps five verses. Eventually, the two missing verses were translated into English as well. The melody we use for the hymn first appeared in the Hymnal Noted in 1851. Thomas Helmore, the compiler of the hymnal, claimed the melody came from “a French missal in the National Library, Lisbon,” but if it did, no one has been able to find it since. This has led many to suspect that Helmore composed it himself in the style of a chant.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has a tremendous amount of meaning to me personally, as it helped me get through the death of my beloved father-in-law just before Christmas twenty years ago. I wrote about that in the Colson Center Worldview Journal three years ago in the article, “Death at Christmas.” I’d encourage you to read that piece, particularly if you are mourning the loss of a loved one this Christmas.
The following are the O Antiphons for each day in Latin and English, the corresponding verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Latin and English (note that they are in a different order from how we usually sing it), and some of the Scripture verses that the antiphons reference. I would encourage you to join with the church through the ages in using these in your personal worship on these days.
I recommend reading the Antiphon to understand what it is saying, then spend some time reading and meditating on the scriptural texts. Then pray the Antiphon in light of your reading of the Scriptures and end by singing the verse of the hymn.
Spending time with these scriptural texts is a powerful way to prepare you for Christmas and will give you a greater appreciation of just who it is that was born on that night in Bethlehem. And praying the antiphons and singing the hymn will help connect you with the people of God in all times and in all ages who have prayed and sung these very same words to the honor and glory of their Savior.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
suaviter disponensque omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God,
you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care:
Come and show your people the way to salvation.
Veni, O Sapientia, quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae ut doceas et gloriae.
Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!
(2) O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!