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How the O Antiphons direct our gaze toward the coming of our Savior

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“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may enter.”
— Psalm 24:7

To make space for the Savior born unto us, we ourselves must grow larger. The Lord who comes to us in the tiny space of Mary’s womb, whom we first see swaddled in the manger, deigns to grow as the Lord of our lives. We must meet him each time with a willingness to change.

In the last days of Advent, the Church beckons us to make room for our Savior through the recitation of the “O Antiphons.” These prayers find their home in vespers from Dec. 17 to Dec. 23. By not only reciting them but also by meditating on the particular ray of Christ’s glory to which each prayer introduces us, we are meant to widen our hearts, stretch our imaginations and open our souls to the magnificent Redeemer who comes to us in the humility of a child. The prayers, often recited in Latin, are composed as follows:

December 17
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God,
you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care.
Come and show your people the way to salvation.

December 18
O sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

December 19
O Flower of Jesse’s stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

December 20
O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel
Controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
come, break down the prison walls of death
for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
and lead your captive people into freedom.

December 21
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 22
O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the might arch of man,
come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

December 23
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people,
come and set us free, Lord our God.

The Lord’s preparations

The act of calling upon the Lord according to how he has revealed himself in ages past is itself an act of fidelity and praise. Each of these prayers draws us back into salvation history — principally through Old Testament names and images — so that we may recognize and proclaim the Savior born to Mary as the same Lord who worked great deeds for Israel, building toward the salvation of the world. Praying these prayers is thus as much an act of gratitude as it is of preparation. Indeed, the exercise of gratitude opens us up to receive the Lord ever more selflessly, ever more freely.

What we grow to realize in the O Antiphons is that all our own preparations for the Savior — year in and year out, in season and out of season, from one heart to the next — all have been preceded and exceeded by God’s own preparations. It is God himself who has been preparing our salvation, fashioning a people and ultimately one humble, glorious handmaiden to bear for us this one eternal gift. The Lord seeks from us a response to his own preparations. He desires for us to receive him patiently and generously, for he has patiently and generously prepared to give himself to us. We grow into the Lord’s own patience and generosity in prayer, with the aid of these prayers in particular.

The role of Our Lady

The link between the Lord’s preparations and our own is the person of Mary. She prepared to receive the word of the angel through her own practice of contemplation and her study of the Scriptures. Unlike Zechariah before her, she was not fearful when the angel spoke but rather “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:29). When the angel told her of the Most High’s preparation for this child in the images and history of all Israel, these words were welcome and alive in Mary’s hearing. She recognized the meaning of the “throne of David,” of “the household of Jacob,” of the “overshadowing” of the Most High, and of the pregnancy of her aged, barren kinswoman, Elizabeth, who was being presented to her now as the new Sarah. Mary was capacious to the word of the Lord. And when the words of the angel ceased, all heaven bent down to listen to her response: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

A FREE RESOURCE
If you would like a free resource to guide you through the O Antiphons, the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame offers an ebook, “Praying the O Antiphons,” at churchlife-info.nd.edu/praying-the-o-antiphons.

During vespers on Dec. 17 to Dec. 23, this link between God’s preparations and our own is proclaimed, as the O Antiphons are immediately followed by the recitation of Our Lady’s Magnificat canticle. The Lord found a full reception in her who rejoiced in the coming of our Savior. She recognized him, she chose him, she became a home for him in this world. She is the figure of the Church and the model of every disciple. She is what we are to become: the one in whom God’s patient and generous preparation finds a reception in kind.

To welcome the Lord as Mary does, we ourselves must change. We must enrich our memory and increase our longing. The more we know the words and deeds of God throughout salvation, the better we know the Child born to us. Indeed, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. So, too, familiarity with and love of Scripture leads to familiarity and love of Christ.

Following the path that leads to Christ

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These O Antiphons are an annual training in memory and hope. They are not to be rushed. We are called to join together in prayer to let the sound of these words of memory and longing resound upon our lips and in our ears, and then in our hearts. We are called to pray these on our own, so that each of us may share in the Church’s calling to become a more fitting home for our Savior.

In the first book of his Confessions, St. Augustine calls upon the Lord to have mercy on him, while recognizing that he himself has become an unfit dwelling place for the Lord. He knows the Lord desires and deserves a generous welcome, but he also knows that he himself lacks this graced generosity. All the same, Augustine beckons the Lord to come. He confesses his unworthiness and begs the Lord to hasten to him: “The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming” (I.6).

This is the humility and trust the O Antiphons demand of us. We, who know ourselves to be lacking in patience and generosity, are led to call upon the Lord all the same. We, who are only too aware of our sins, are directed to set our gaze instead upon the Lord’s goodness in ages past. We, who have nothing befitting the Lord of all, are called to give him lordship of our lives. It begins by calling upon him. With increasing intensity and intimacy, we follow this path that leads us toward the Savior who is coming, and as we sing and chant and pray, we ourselves are changed by the journey.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at bit.ly/lifesweetnesshope.

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