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A Pre-Christmas 'Novena'

Rethinking a Standard Advent Hymn

by The Rev. James R. DeViese, Jr, JCL

This article is reprinted from The Lewis County Catholic Times, the weekly bulletin of Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Weston, West Virginia.

O Antiphons Perhaps one of the most well-known, yet oft-misunderstood, Advent hymns is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Many drag it along as a dirge or simply try to avoid it altogether. But its ancient and venerable text holds a far greater significance than simply that of a song we sing to the point of exhaustion for a couple of weeks each year. It is based upon some beautiful theological prayers called the Great — or "O" — Antiphons.

These O Antiphons developed during the Church's very first centuries. The writer Boethius (+525) mentions them. By the 8th century they were in use at Rome. There are seven of these special antiphons, and their texts spring from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophetic and Wisdom Books. The O Antiphons begin on December 17, seven days before the Vigil of Christmas (December 24). The seventh and last antiphon is sung at Vespers on December 23. They are called the "O" Antiphons because they all begin with the letter-word "O." They address Jesus by one of His Old Testament titles. They are fervent prayers asking Our Lord to come to us.

It may not be apparent in English, but in the original Latin it is obvious that the monks who first began to chant these antiphons arranged them in a very specific way, so as to convey an interesting and beautiful message. The Latin versions of each of the titles of the Messiah are:

Sapientia (Wisdom)
Adonai (Lord)
Radix (Root)
Clavis (Key)
Oriens (Dawn)
Rex (King)
Emmanuel (God-with-us)

Take the first letters of each of the Latin titles, starting with the last and working back to the first. You spell: EROCRAS or "ero cras" — I will be (there) tomorrow." So, the message is complete on the day before Christmas Eve.

The chant "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is simply a reworking of the seven O Antiphons — each verse being based on a different one. When we sing it, we are joining ourselves to a vast throng of Christians stretching back across centuries and spanning the whole of the earth who prayed as all Christians do, "Come, Lord Jesus!" [Rev 22:20]

And so, it is only fitting that during this 'novena' before Christmas we intensify our longing for the coming of the Christ Child, and unite our hearts, minds, and voices in praying these texts as the Church has always intended — as a liturgical countdown to our spiritual "liftoff" that is the Incarnation of God, Jesus Christ. And we do so by making our singing of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" in the last week of Advent sweeter, as it echoes those ancient texts which inspired it.

As a spiritual exercise for this pre-Christmas novena, let us all take just a brief 30 seconds each morning, and pray these beautiful prayers as we await the coming of Our Lord.

  • December 17: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end, and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
  • December 18: O Lord and Ruler the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and gave him the law on Sinai: come, and redeem us with outstretched arms.
  • December 19: O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence, and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: come, to deliver us, and tarry not.
  • December 20: O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and lead forth from his prison the captive who sits in the shadows.
  • December 21: O Dawn of the East, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
  • December 22: O King of the Gentiles and their desired One, the cornerstone that makes both one: come, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.
  • December 23: O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.

Article written 18 December 2016

The Rev. James R. DeViese, Jr, JCL, is Pastor of Saint Patrick Church in Weston WV and is Promoter of Justice in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

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