How Praying the “O Antiphons” Can Bring You through the Wait of Advent

We are coming up on the last push of Advent.

Now is the time when perhaps waiting seems most impossible. Indeed, for some families, gatherings with grandparents, cousins, great-uncles, etc. will begin in a matter of days. Church musicals and special services are whipping to a frenzy. And maybe our hearts are burning, just a little, with the strain of the wait.

Good.

This is probably a safe indication that Advent is well at home with us, in our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Keeping Advent in this space is possible and worth it. This could be the time in which it matters the most.

Lutheran theologian, mother, author, artist, and Montessori educator Gertrud Mueller Nelson has been a teacher for me in this. She says “…to WAIT brings drama to what is indeed worth waiting for.”

I doubt anyone reading this post questions the sincere worth of Christmas. We are most likely not confused as to whether or not the incarnation and reign of Christ are big deals worthy of our attention and vigilance.

We dig it, we love it, and we hang our theological hats on it.

But I bet a few of us have felt a certain lack of spunk by the time Christmas Day rolled around. We have felt cheered out, maybe, and unable to quite touch the heart of that all-important Reason for the Season.

Advent as a liturgical and spiritual practice is evidence that we are not the only ones who have had this experience. As I mentioned in How We’ll Advent this Year, the reason Christians even have this season is because beloved sisters and brothers throughout time have walked this road before us.

They, too, have felt the press of society’s rush to fun, albeit disordered, celebration.

They, too, have struggled to embrace the holy tension of the come and coming King over the comfortable and commercialized sentimentality of Xmas.

To Dance with God

In her book To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration, Mueller Nelson says that

“Sentimentality is the emotion we feel when we scoop off a part of the truth, that part which we are willing to accept, and slather is like syrup to cover what we do not want to see. Usually what we don’t want to see is our own responsibility to the remaining truth.” (page 77)

I wonder what important truth needs our attention here in the unbearable wait of the rest of Advent. I wonder what exactly makes this wait feel so tight and heavy for us. Is it really the shopping mall Santas and family shindigs, or is it something more?

What is it that God beckons us see right now?

The tension and drama—the dynamic experience of seeing all parts, not just the jolly ones—of Advent and the Christmas it leads to bears truth too important to ignore.

I do not know what it is God has for us, but I know that it will be worth the wait. If we can hold on.

But how?

Enter the O Antiphons, one of the most dramatic and mysterious gifts of Advent.

What are the O Antiphons?

An antiphon is just a brief prayer said immediately before or after a psalm or canticle during a prayer service. The O Antiphons are the special prayers reserved for evening prayer during the last 7 days before Christmas Eve.

And they are pretty special, let me tell you.

Pulled together during the 8th century in Rome (thus, in Latin), these antiphons are ancient pieces of messianic hope tied up in one beautifully poetic bundle. Each one begins with a name of Christ from the depths of Israel’s prophetic tradition and continues to voice all creation’s desire for him to draw near.

O Antiphons:

Names of Jesus, Traditional Prayer, & Scripture References

  1. O Sapientia – O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. (Proverbs, John 1)

  2. O Adonai – O Lord, leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. (Exodus 3:2; Nehemiah 9:13)

  3. O Radix Jesse – O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. (Isaiah 11:10; 52:15)

  4. O Clavis David – O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. (Isaiah 22:22; 42:7)

  5. O Oriens – O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. (Luke 1:78-79)

  6. O Rex Gentium – O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay. (Jeremiah 10:7; Haggai 2:7; Isaiah 28:16)

  7. O Emmanuel – O Emmanuel (“God with us”), our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God. (Isaiah 7:14; 33:22)

The O Antiphons help us hear and join in Mary’s unapologetic words of hope and justice. They were made to flank the Magnificat, Mary’s powerful song from Luke 1:46-55 during evening prayer.

Now the O Antiphons have grown into a stand-alone tradition, a series of tiny services of prayer, light, and song, which is open to us in our homes every night between December 17 and December 23.

They offer us:

  • A structure that can hold and express the ache of the wait.

  • Powerful leadership for our distracted thoughts. You can hardly get more radical, rooted, and Real than Mary’s Song.

  • 7 invitations to gather in stillness and hope with our loved ones before God during one of the most harried times of the year

  • A loving touch of the mystical: In the original Latin, the first letter of each title of Christ in reverse order form an acrostic, the phrase ERO CRAS: “I am coming soon.” It is like the eternal Christ is whispering to us from the future and in the present simultaneously, reminding us—and sending chills down our spines—that he is nearer than we could ever imagine. God is with us, indeed, even in our waiting.

How to Prepare:

All you really need are the prayers and a bit of time. Candles and loved ones can really add to the practice.

Send an informal text to your neighbors and call in the kids.

Gather seven candles of any type in a central place; we use this little tray on our coffee table.

O Antiphons Can Bring You through the Wait of Advent - for the birds

Print or Airdrop the prayers and song lyrics. Here is a simple PDF printout that I made for us this year. Feel free to download and use at will.

And you’re ready to go.

How to Pray the O Antiphons:

When night falls and it is time to pray, here’s what we do.

Gather and find the silence. The O Antiphons bear a gift of breath. Gather in and be still, inhaling the blessed oxygen and the holy presence of Spirit and community.

Read Mary’s Song. Do this out loud together. Every night. Give yourself into it. What do you hear? What stands out? What makes strengthens your heart? What makes you feel uncomfortable? What is God stirring in you?

Pray the O Antiphon for the night. This could be led by one person, a different person each night, or everyone could read it aloud together.

Light the candle(s).

O Antiphons Can Bring You through the Wait of Advent - for the birds

Each night, light one more candle, one for each sacred name and ancient prayer of hope. This would be a great job to pass around, especially to any younglings in your midst.

Sing the corresponding verse of O Come O Come Emmanuel. I love this. There is a verse for every O Antiphon.

Go in peace into the night. Carry with you whatever it is that you received. Share looks of love and giggles of goodness, or simply embrace the quiet, whatever feels right. Let the candles burn until bedtime.

O Antiphons Can Bring You through the Wait of Advent - for the birds

I will be mindful of you as I pray through the O Antiphons this year, beloveds. Blessings to you in this Great Wait—

Grateful for your presence here.

L