December 17th begins the octave before Christmas and that can mean only one thing: O Antiphons!
Oh? Oh yes!
You know parts of them from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (a haunting, richly executed version is below, courtesy the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). But there is so much more.
The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil.
The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.
Meantime, click below, crank up the speakers, and savor a haunting pre-Christmas hymn to longing and hope.