This large community of sisters is singing antiphonally which means back and forth to each other. And if we were guests listening or participating, while they're singing this way at Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours, we'd hear antiphons. An antiphon is a short line from scripture or a theological verse sung before and after a psalm or a scriptural song. And while anticipating the feast of Christ's Birth, over the centuries unique antiphons have evolved bracketing Mary's Magnificat at Vespers (Evening Prayer) for December 17th through the 23rd. These are called the O Antiphons.
The O Antiphons (each starting off with the word or sound O) are addressed to Jesus as he fulfills a Messianic hope of ancient Israel. The Messiah remember, is God's promised agent of hope-restored, renewal, peace, healing and unity. The Jews still wait, while Christians believe he has come to us in Jesus Christ, the great King, greater than all the rest, or any thing we might "crown" today. And while the Messiah has come to us in history, we sing these short verses, asking for him to come to us each personally and spiritually. Don't we need a restorer, a healer, a reconciler?
But as beautiful as these antiphons are, they might come across as obtuse or hard to grasp as they were written long ago, or because we don't get theological language, or because we were never taught, or because the culture talks so much and words don't mean much anymore.
So, what I'd like to do is reflect one-a-day just on the titles themselves: O Wisdom, O Leader, O Root, O Key, O Radiant Dawn, O King, O Emmanuel. But even before that, a few words about the littlest word or sound: O.
O is the 15th letter of the alphabet. O is the universal donor blood type. And O is a little sound we make when we have had a new thought or just remembered something: "O what a great idea that is!" "O look at the time!"
O is like an exclamation point at the start of sentence. O gives expression to a range of emotions:
O what a surprise seeing you here!
O that makes me so angry.
O God, help me!
O my goodness!
O that's so disappointing.
O that makes me sad!
O what a beautiful baby!
O is often used in prayers: "O my God, I am heartily sorry, for having offended thee." "Remember O most compassionate Virgin Mary, that never was it known..." "O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary...." "O God, come to my assistance..."
We hear the little O at the start of the Advent antiphons as bursts of longing, expressions of wonder and awe before something at first indescribable - too wonderful for words. Do we remember wonder and awe?
In the early 70's I started my teaching career with 6th graders on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Once we made a long paper mural that wrapped around the room illustrating the verses of the Canticle of the Three Boys in the Fiery Furnace from the Book of Daniel. When it came to "Lights in the night, bless the Lord," one boy painted a city-scape with street lights shining brightly. I wouldn't have thought of that, having grown up in suburbia which, at least when I was this boy's age, allowed me to see the stars. To be sure, he was correct, even the streetlights and the traffic lights bless the Lord. But I think somehow he'd been cheated out of an experience of wonder in never having seen a sky full of stars. Competitive urban lights make them disappear.
So maybe, with so much craziness around us, and you-name-it distraction, we might find something to wonder about, stand in front of with awe these last Advent days. I was in a supermarket recently that had twelve different kinds of apples displayed for sale - each uniquely shaped and patterned with color, to say nothing of how they might each taste. O my goodness! O how delightful!