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Monday, 30 November 2015

Advent Carol Service: Great O Antiphons

'We are at the beginning of a holy season in which we connect again with our ‘inconsolable longing’, as CS Lewis called it, our yearning for the One who is to come and is also, mysteriously, the One who has come already, come as child, come as fellow-sufferer, come as Saviour, and yet whose coming, already achieved, we hold at bay from ourselves, so that we have to learn afresh each year, even each day, how to let him come to us again.

In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah,' calling to him; O Emmanuel (God With Us) ; O Sapientia (Wisdom); O Radix (Root); O Oriens (Daystar); O Clavis (Key); O Adonai (Great Lord); and O Rex Gentium (Desire of Nations).

'These antiphons were sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers, according to the Roman use, on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (17–23 December).They are addressed to God, calling for him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a tapestry of scriptural titles and pictures that describe his saving work in Christ. In the medieval rite of Salisbury Cathedral that was widely followed in England before the Reformation, the antiphons began on 16 December and there was an additional antiphon (‘O Virgin of virgins’) on 23 December; this is reflected in the Calendar of The Book of Common Prayer, where16 December is designated O Sapientia (O Wisdom).'

'Until a few years ago, I didn’t know what these “Great O Antiphons” were; although I was well acquainted with the song (O come, O come Emmanuel) that preserves the tradition and these seven ancient, prophetic names' for the Christ.

The person who made me aware of these Advent Antiphons was the priest-poet Malcolm Guite, who has 'responded to these seven Antiphons with seven sonnets, re-voicing them for our own age now, but preserving the heart of each, which is a prayer for Christ’s Advent for his coming, now in us, and at the end of time, in and for all.'

Click here to read Malcolm Guite's sonnet O Sapientia.

'The last of the Seven Great O Antiphons, which was sung on either side of the Magnificat, is O Emmanuel, O God with us. This is the antiphon from which our lovely Advent hymn takes its name. It was also this final antiphon which revealed the secret message embedded subtly into the whole antiphon sequence. In each of these antiphons we call on Christ to come to us, to come as Light as Key, as King, as God-with-us. Now, singing this Antiphon standing on the brink of Christmas Eve, looking back at the illuminated capital letters for each of the seven titles of Christ we would see an answer to our pleas : ERO CRAS, the latin words meaning ‘Tomorrow I will come!”

O Emmanuel
O Rex
O Oriens

O Clavis
O Radix
O Adonai
O Sapientia'

Malcolm Guite in his final sonnet 'tries to look back across the other titles of Christ, but also to look forward, beyond Christmas, to the new birth for humanity and for the whole cosmos, which is promised in the birth of God in our midst.'

Click here to read Malcolm Guite's sonnet O Emmanuel.


Malcolm Guite - O Sapientia.

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