Advent is a difficult season to remain focused in prayer. The whole world is already celebrating “Christmas” and so it is hard to keep a proper disposition of hopeful expectation in our hearts. Thankfully if we find ourselves struggling to keep the spirit of Advent in our hearts, the Church has already given us a powerful way to prepare for Christmas.
From December 17th until December 23rd, the Church gives us the “Great Antiphons” (also known as the “O Antiphons“) to remedy the situation. These short verses are used in the liturgy to heighten our senses and prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ.
A great practice during these final days of Advent is to pray and meditate on these antiphons and allow the beauty of the words to sink into the depths of our hearts.
Here is some background for those who may not be familiar with this ancient tradition of the Church:
Similar to Holy Week that precedes the great celebration of Easter, the Church designates the final week of Advent to a more immediate preparation for the feast of Christmas. In the context of the liturgy, the Church designates specific “antiphons” or verses to be used during these final days and places them before the recitation of the Magnificat during Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours.
These short verses are deep in symbolism and reflect the various titles of Jesus found in scripture and refer to different prophecies of the Old Testament.
Dom Prosper Guéranger explains the significance of the O Antiphons in his Liturgical Year:
The canonical Hour of Vespers has been selected as the most appropriate time for this solemn supplication to our Savior, because, as the Church sings in one of her hymns, it was in the Evening of the world (vergente mundi vespere) that the Messiah came amongst us. These Antiphons are sung at the Magnificat, to show us that the Savior, whom we expect, is to come to us by Mary … these admirable Antiphons, which contain the whole pith of the Advent Liturgy, are accompanied by a chant replete with melodious gravity, and by ceremonies of great expressiveness … Let us enter into the spirit of the Church; let us reflect on the great Day which is coming; that thus we may take our share in these the last and most earnest solicitations of the Church imploring her Spouse to come, and to which He at length yields.
A simple practice is to take a few moments to mediate on the antiphons each day, considering the different titles of Our Lord. It puts us into the mindset of the ancient Israelites and how they waited for a savior for so many centuries. Their hearts longed for God to come and save them and we too should have that same longing in our hearts during Advent.
The beauty of these antiphons lies in the final verse of each antiphon that begins “come.” We ask God to come into our lives and to transform it in various ways. We need God in our lives and we need him to shine a light into our darkness.
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
If you are interested in singing/chanting these Great Antiphons, you can find them all in the traditional Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Let us make room for Christ our Savior during these final days of Advent!