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

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: Punishing the poor and needy

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Every afternoon in downtown Denver, homeless men, women and children are given shelter, food and a place to wash themselves. Not far away, hundreds of people are receiving high quality medical care at one of our Catholic hospitals or Marisol Health. Some local parishes also distribute food, clothing, or help with rent. Whether you are on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope or along the Front Range, people of faith are contributing their skills and resources to your community and making it a better place to live, and especially for the less fortunate.

Since we celebrated our nation’s independence about a week ago, the ability of people of faith to make a positive contribution to our society has been on my mind. People of faith make our society a better place as they seek the good and the true, and the right to live our faith in the public square is guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, there are forces at work trying to change that, and if they succeed it will be the vulnerable who are hurt the most.

Many people are familiar with Jack Phillips’ case because he recently received a favorable verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court. In brief, Jack was sued by a gay couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, since doing so would contradict his belief that God created marriage to be between a man and a woman. His case – and others around the country – clearly show that there are people who want to silence Christian people and use the force of law to make them act against their faith or be punished.

Tim Gill, the multimillionaire who is funding and directing many of these efforts, plainly stated his intentions in a June 2017 Rolling Stone interview. “We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” he said. “We’re going to punish the wicked.” According to Gill, people of faith are “wicked” when their views do not agree with his. In this worldview, there is no room for differences on matters of prudence or conscience.

What you won’t hear from activists like Tim Gill is that the people who will suffer the most from his campaign against faith and the freedom of conscience are the homeless, children waiting to be adopted, or those needing hospital care. In short, the people who will be hurt are those who rely on the charitable activity of people of faith.

Take, for example, the Catholic Charities adoption programs in Boston, Illinois, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that have been forced to shut down because they believe it’s not in children’s best interest to be placed with a same-sex couple. In Illinois, Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield estimates that about 3,000 children were impacted by their closure. As was predicted, the state is now experiencing a shortage of quality foster families. Surely, this does not benefit society.

It is unexpected, but homeless men and women are also being impacted by changes to regulations. In Sept. 2016 the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized rules that require homeless shelters to accommodate transgender people by placing them according to whatever gender they present themselves as, rather than their biological sex. Most often, it is men identifying themselves as women who approach the shelters, and this frightens the women, especially since many of them have been victimized by men on the streets.

Religious freedom can seem like an abstract concept, but when you look at the fruits of this basic liberty, its importance becomes clear. Moved by their faith, Catholics and others in the Archdiocese of Denver spent 2017 providing over 212,000 nights of shelter, emergency assistance to 28,000 households, 714 job placements, and almost 73,000 volunteer hours through Catholic Charities.

Further, hundreds of immigrants are assisted with English as a Second Language classes, business training, and faith formation through Centro San Juan Diego. In the name of Jesus, tens of thousands of sick people receive medical care at Catholic hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. This list doesn’t include other Christian, Jewish, or Muslim charitable endeavors, nor does it include individuals whose faith guides the way they run their small business or their work for their employer.

It is a convenient and worn-out argument to accuse people of discrimination to pressure them into giving up their beliefs, but this tactic ignores the people who suffer the most from the intolerance of those insisting people of faith give up their beliefs. Our country has long recognized and benefited from the gifts of faithful people, and restricting this spirit of generosity will make our society poorer.

I am grateful that the Supreme Court recognized that Jack Phillips’ right to religious freedom was infringed, but his case will certainly not be the last. As Christians, we must respond to this pressure with the joy that is born from faith, with loving, persistent resistance and forgiveness. Let us respond to Pope Francis’ appeal that he made as he spoke in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights.”