The “O” Antiphons, a family-enriching tradition for Advent

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

As most people begin the Christmas celebrations after thanksgiving, Catholics are called to prepare for the coming of Jesus into their hearts and homes.

The ancient monastic tradition of chanting or reciting the “O Antiphons” during the week leading up to Christmas is a great means to help the Catholic family do just that.

“It is a wonderful tradition for all Catholics,” said Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer, novice mistress and farm manager in the Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado. “The Church gives us these antiphons as a great tool to help us enter into the longing for God to come.”

They are sung or recited in every Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours from Dec. 17 to the 23, before and after the Magnificat.

Sister Walburga recommends families to take the monastic practice into their homes.

She grew up being exposed to Benedictine monasticism, which played a key role in her vocation. Her family used to pray the Divine Office daily.

“Even if you don’t pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day, you could have a little ceremony at home [to incorporate this tradition],” Sister Walburga said. “You can solemnly pray the Magnificat with the antiphon sung, light a candle and have an icon of our Blessed Mother.”

Such practices deeply enrich Catholic families and prepare them to welcome our Savior by meditating on the prophetic titles given to Jesus from the Old Testament. It’s meant to help Christians reflect on who the child to be born really is.

They also “exercise” the Christian desire for him by the repeating supplication, “O come…”

Sister Walburga has helped us explore each antiphon to help the faithful reflect on their deep meaning.

Dec. 17: 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.

This antiphon, along with the last one, contain the pivotal names being evoked. This verse takes us to the beginning, to Creation, where the Word was already with God and was God. It is this God, powerful and tender, the one who is to become man and teach us.

Dec. 18: O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

This verse puts us in the tradition of our Jewish roots. The leader of the house of Israel is to be born. God chose the people of Israel to give man a way of being the people of God. Now he will reveal himself fully in the person of Jesus, setting us free.

Dec. 19: O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

God becoming man is a historical event. He is born into a specific family, people and genealogy. He is not outside of humanity but is part of it. Yet, even though he is to be born into a people, all of humanity will cry out for him.

Dec. 20: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

David was not a perfect king, he was a sinner. Yet, the Messiah will come from his house. He will have power over death and the power to free the people enslaved to the darkness of sin.

Dec. 21: O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death.

The Lord that is to come will bring joy and hope to those who are in darkness. As expressed in the Book of Malachi: “The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping [joyfully] like calves from the stall.”

Dec. 22: O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

The one who formed man will come to him as a child. He will be the king of all the nations because every human heart already longs for him without knowing. Jesus will be the cornerstone in which humanity is united: Jews and gentiles.

Dec. 23: O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

This antiphon encompasses various other antiphons. It proclaims the identity of Jesus – “God with us” –  the God who has pitched his tent among man by taking on his human flesh. The child is the fulfillment of all revelation.

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.