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.