It’s the Advent season! Perhaps you’ve been humming a bit of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” lately? In one of the Advent devotions that I’m reading this year, I learned that each of the seven verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” are based on an ancient Christian tradition called the “O Antiphons.”
In the Anglican custom that John Wesley would have recognized as a priest in the Church of England, evening prayer services were common. Evening prayer services, also called Vespers, would be held regularly in the parishes, and sometimes the services would be sung and referred to as Evensong services. During the liturgical seasons of the Christian year, different Scripture verses and prayers would be used during the services. Take a look at the website for Duke Chapel (www.chapel.duke.edu) for Choral Vespers worship services to experience one for yourself! At each evening prayer service there is an appointed Antiphon based upon the season of the Church year. The antiphons are short verses that are spoken, chanted, or sung by the congregation as part of the liturgy of the Evensong or Vesper service.
For the Advent season, there is a group of seven antiphons that are sung or chanted the week before Christmas – from December 17 through December 23. These antiphons are known as the “O Antiphons” because each one begins with an “O.” They are based on Mary’s Magnificat. Each of the O Antiphons begins with a name for Christ, e.g., O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of Nations, O Emmanuel.
Christians have been worshiping with these Antiphons for a long time. The words to the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” are from the ninth century, and the music of the hymn is a fifteenth century French carol. The hymn is number 211 in The United Methodist Hymnal. All seven verses with the O Antiphons are included, and there is a liturgical reading provided for each of the verses. Spend some time pondering the words to the hymn and the names for Jesus during this Advent season. To further add to your pondering of the great “O Antiphons,” here’s a lovely poem from Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year by Anglican priest, poet, and musician Malcolm Guite. This particular sonnet for the Advent season incorporates the “O Antiphons” that are familiar from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” into the text of the poem. A copy of Sounding the Seasons can be found in the HBUMC Library. O Emmanuel O come, O come, and be our God-with-us, O long-sought with-ness for a world without, O secret seed, O hidden spring of light. Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name, Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame, O quickened little wick so tightly curled, Be folded with us into time and place, Unfold for us the mystery of grace And make a womb of all this wounded world. O heart of heaven beating in the earth, O tiny hope within our hopelessness, Come to be born, to bear us to our birth, To touch a dying world with new-made hands And make these rages of time our swaddling bands.
I pray that you enjoy a peaceful, thoughtful, and hopeful Advent season, Pastor Molly