The hidden message in ancient ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent

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Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 4, 2022 / 07:00 am (CNA).

An emeritus Texas bishop is highlighting an Advent message hidden in the O Antiphons — prayers that are recited or chanted in an ancient tradition leading up to Christmas.

“Composed in the sixth or seventh century, the seven O Antiphons are drawn from the Book of the prophet Isaiah and the first letters of each antiphon form the Latin word SARCORE, which read backwards is ERO CRAS, which means ‘Tomorrow I come,’” Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer, OMI, bishop emeritus of San Angelo, wrote in a December statement.

Pfeifer, who served as the bishop of San Angelo from 1985 to 2013, listed the O Antiphons, which are said Dec. 17–23 during Vespers (the Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours) and Masses. The first letters spell the message in an acrostic:

Dec. 17 — “O Sapientia”/“O Wisdom” (Isaiah 11:2-3; 28:29)

Dec. 18 — “O Adonai”/“O Lord” (Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22)

Dec. 19 — “O Radix Jesse”/“O Root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1; 11:10)

Dec. 20 — “O Clavis David”/“O Key of David” (Isaiah 9:6; 22:22)

Dec. 21 — “O Oriens”/“O Dawn of the East” (Isaiah 9:2)

Dec. 22 — “O Rex Gentiu”/“O King of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 2:4; 9:7)

Dec. 23 — “O Emmanuel”/“God with Us” (Isaiah 7:14)

Together, these antiphons spell out “a hopeful message about the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, of Jesus as we prepare for his birthday each year on Dec. 25,” Pfeifer said.

He went on to explain why they end on Dec. 23.

“Traditionally feasts were said to begin on the eve of their celebration, so Christmas begins at sundown on Dec. 24,” he wrote.

The message in the antiphons holds true today, Pfeifer emphasized.

“Each Christmas Jesus fulfills the promise ‘I will come tomorrow’ by being born again as a tiny baby, the Godman, Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “We can make the following O Antiphons part of our Advent preparation for the birth of Christ by using them in our prayers or Advent scriptural readings.”

He added: “Then in gratitude and joy we celebrate the birth of our long-awaited savior, Jesus Christ — Christmas.”

The seven prayers accompany the Magnificat canticle, or the canticle of Mary, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB lists the text of the O Antiphons, each asking the Messiah to come and, together, spelling out his response in the acrostic.

“They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well,” the U.S. bishops say on their website.

Pfeifer shared other recommendations to help prepare for Christmas.

“My strong pastoral message for Advent each year is ‘don’t forget the baby!’” he told CNA.

“First, when we think of a gift, let us open our hearts to receive the gift the baby wants to be for us,” he said. “Then, before all other gifts, we find in our hearts the gift we want to give the baby on his birthday.”


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