Why we sing the ‘O Antiphons’ in the lead-up to Christmas (and not before)
A Reflection for the Friday of the Third Week of Advent
“O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!” (Gospel acclamation)
“The absolute earliest date for listening to Christmas music is the day after Thanksgiving,” she told me. “Really? Where did that come from?”
Had I curbed my curiosity about my friend’s emphatic pronouncement, I would have spared myself the protracted tête-à-tête that ensued regarding the appropriate time to cue the carols. (I have since learned that—even if it makes little sense to this Portuguese-South African—it is an edict to which not few Catholics in these United States vigorously assent.)
Days later, we started planning for “Hark!”, the limited edition podcast series from America that would tell the stories behind our favorite Christmas carols. “Of course, we’ll start with ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel,’” said my co-producer. “What? Absolutely, not!” I protested, and brusquely launched into a pronto litany of why it was absolutely inappropriate to sing any of the “O Antiphons” before Dec. 17: “Because that is the day when the first antiphon is heard in the church’s liturgy….” My one-man crusade for naught, the age-old Advent chant was the very first hymn we dissected on the show—much before the ideal date. Like my friend, it would appear that I, too, am not beyond the dictates of liturgical conscience.
And, you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with this by now. So, indulge me this Dec. 17, please.
In the days preceding Christmas, our Gospel acclamations offer us short but fitting meditations for our pilgrimage to the creche of Christ’s birth.
Today, we enter into the second-half of Advent. We’ve spent the past three weeks considering the second coming of Jesus, the end times, and the prophets and the evangelists have exhorted us to conversion and reform. Maybe some of us have even heeded their cries. Now, we are called to make our way to the barn where it all begins, to contemplate the mysteries of all the Messiah will bring to our world.
In the days preceding Christmas, our Gospel acclamations (and the church’s evening prayer) offer us short but fitting meditations for our pilgrimage to the creche of Christ’s birth as we contemplate the one who is Wisdom (that’s today’s meditation), Ruler, Root of Jesse, Key of David, God-with-us, King and Morning Star. What is more, if you pay attention to these ancient Latin proclamations, you will see that the first letter of each day’s antiphon, when read last to first, spells “ero cras,” which means “Tomorrow, I will come.” And, as antiphon builds on antiphon, we are reminded of the prophecies of the prophets who foretold all this long ago—and our hope is again made certain.
I hope you will agree that even if we hold loosely and inconsistently to most traditions, that is no excuse not to hold fast to some. Come, O Wisdom of our God Most High.
Get to know Ricardo da Silva, S.J., associate editor
1. Favorite Christmas Hymn
Just one? “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” (“A Child Is Born in Bethlehem”), a hymn from the 13th century that I must sing each year. And, of course, it’s not Christmas without “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
2. Favorite Christmas Tradition
The sublime experience of midnight Mass on Christmas Eve—especially when it is actually celebrated at midnight.
3. Favorite Christmas Recipe
The Portuguese celebrate the nativity on Christmas Eve much more than Christmas Day. And though the traditional meal is decidedly unappealing, for me “Bacalhau da Consoada de Natal” brims with nostalgia. It is an entirely boiled dish of salt cod, cabbage, carrots, potato and eggs, topped with generous glugs of olive oil and vinegar.
4. Favorite Content You Produced This Year
As we surpass 800,000 deaths from Covid-19-related complications in the United States, I am reminded of our months-long preparation for “We Remember Them: A virtual prayer service for all who died of Covid-19.” It was a time of tremendous solidarity among America staff that yielded some of our most creative content of the year. I also thoroughly enjoyed and learned so much reporting and producing my first-ever audio stories, “The Memory of God” and “Hark!”
5. Favorite Christmas Photo
Since joining the Jesuits, I have seldom been home for Christmas. That has been really difficult for a single mum and an only child. In December 2012, I was home for Christmas.