Saturday, December 17, 2005

A comment on the Greater Feria - the O Antiphons

Now begins that final (and Roman) count-down. In each of these last seven days (yes, I have not mis-counted: there are eight more, and we'll explain that at the proper time!) our dear Mother Church, knowing how we children long for the coming of Christmas, gives us this most ancient and glorious mechanism called the Great Antiphons or O Antiphons - they are like a grand and ancient clock, with gold and silver hardware and brilliantly painted or finished woods, chiming with wonderful music, and ticking down the last days as it reveals more and more interesting and curious details about the coming feast.

You may be wondering if I am somehow exaggerating my view of this. I may, of course, be making it somewhat more technical, as GKC might have made it more artistic, and literary. But if anything, I am probably not nearly as enthusiastic about this as other writers, nor (of course) as the Church herself.

For example, consider this commentary:
The seven great Antiphons, or O Antiphons, as they are called, are said, one each day, at the Magnificat in Vespers, from December 17th to the 23rd inclusive. Although not written in meter, they are strikingly poetical in thought, and replete with Scriptural allusions. Each Antiphon salutes the coming Messias under one of His many Scriptural titles, and closes with a proper petition. The authorship and date of composition are unknown, They are, however, at least as old as the ninth century [A.D.] and probably much older. There are several translations in both prose and verse.
[Britt, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, 91]
(I will be quoting the translations given by Fr. Britt as we go through the next seven days.)

Dr. Parsch, in his The Church's year of Grace, says: "In studying the "O" antiphons we will keep in mind (a) that each antiphon contains one or more Old Testament types or figures; (b) that each such allusion has a message for the new dispensation of grace; the point of comparison (tertium comparationis) must be sought and evaluated."
He gives a lengthy discussion (usually two pages) addressing both points under each antiphon.

And, in the most amazing collection of books called The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger (I:482) is this:
The Church enters to-day [Dec. 17] on the seven days which precede the Vigil of Christmas, and which are known in the liturgy under the name of the Greater Ferias. The ordinary of the Advent office becomes more solemn, the antiphons of the psalms, both for Lauds and the Hours of the day, are proper, and allude expressly to the great coming. Every day, at Vespers, is sung a solemn antiphon, consisting of a fervent prayer to the Messias, whom it addresses by one of the titles given Him in the sacred Scriptures. In the Roman Church, there are seven of these antiphons, one for each of the greater ferias. They are commonly called the O's of Advent, because they all begin with that interjection. ... The canonical Hour of Vespers has been selected as the most appropriate time for this solemn supplication to our Savior, because, as the Church sings in one of her hymns, it was in the evening of the world that the Messias came amongst us. These antiphons are sung at the Magnificat, to show us that the Savior who we expect is to come to us by mary. They are sung twice, once before and once after the canticle, as on double feasts, and this is to show their great solemnity. ... let us enter into the spirit of the Church; let us reflect on the great day which is coming; that thus we may take our sharein these the last and most earnest solicitations of the Church imploring her Spouse to come, to which He at length yields.
The Abbot, like Dr. Parsch, has provided length discussions exploring the biblical and ecclesial details within each of these antiphons. You will also recognize them as the seven verses from the very popular Advent hymn, "O come o come Emmanuel" - which is actually the last of the seven.

But as we go through these days, rather than attempt what could only be a poor approximation of these fine discussions, I will instead explore something very strange, but very interesting. It might almost be called "The Other Chosen People" - for as I hinted yesterday about count-downs, the Romans also have their place in this picture. And it is time to see the mystical harmony God granted us, by giving them a role - a small and a sometimes haphazard and broken role - but indeed a major role in the world into which Jesus Christ was born.

Again bear in mind while I will recount certain facts from history, much will be speculation - or perhaps the poetry which can sometimes arise from adjacency. I will not argue the points, but merely point out strange parallels.


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