Friday, December 17, 2010

Oh! antiphons

I HAVE A SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS who like me are fans of the Liturgy of the Hours, and when Dec. 17 rolls around I can count on a couple of emails anticipating the beginning tonight of the "O Antiphons," the ancient short prayers that precede recitation of the Canticle of Mary, also known as the Magnificat, during the evening office of Vespers.

The O's are very old, dating as far back as the 400s A.D. -- a 1,600-year-old tradition that really speaks to their beauty and power. Each of the O's corresponds to a title of the Messiah bestowed so poetically by the Prophet Isaiah seven centuries before Jesus' birth. The seven O's (see the Wikipedia entry for the list) form a Latin acrostic referring to the Savior's imminent arrival, ERO CRAS, "Tomorrow I will come."

One of the treasures in the Mount's Special Collections is our 18th Century antiphonary (photo above), a big book o' Gregorian chant used by monks for singing the Hours. It's bound in leather and wood and printed on cotton-rag paper in Venice in 1746. Most of the Mount students have at least heard of Gregorian chant, and they are always impressed by this folio-sized tome.

The first of the seven O's begins, "O Sapientia quae exore Altissimi produiisti..."
O Wisdom from the mouth of the Most High, you fill the whole world. With strength and gentleness, you order all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.
Besides the 7-day countdown to Christmas, what I love most about the O's is their 16 centuries of continuity. The translation above is courtesy of Universalis, a free online resource. You can download the O's, and the rest of the Liturgy of the Hours for your smart phone, Kindle, or other e-book reader, or pray the daily office with the rest of the Church via your web browser. Now that's continuity. I wonder what Isaiah would think.

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