Advent, the great period of anticipation and preparation, is waning as we continue toward the celebration of the Incarnation on December 25th. The Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Universal Church, begins on December 17 with the invocation of the Great O Antiphons forming the octave before Christmas. These antiphons invoke the prophecy of Isaiah and recall a Messianic title on each day that is attributed to the coming Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. No one is quite sure of the origins of the tradition, however in the eight century the custom was firmly rooted in the Benedictine Abbey of Fleury. The Abbot of the community intoned the titles and they were passed down in song as a gift to each member of the monastic community. Even the ancient philosopher and most likely the early Christian martyr Boethius (circa A.D. 480-525) makes mention of the Great O Antiphons in his writings as an indication of the already nascent custom of the primitive Catholic Church.
O Sapientia: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord” (11:2-3), and “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom” (28:29).
O Adonai: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips” (11:4-5) and “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us” (33:22).
O Radix Jesse: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (11:1), and “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious” (11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:1).
O Clavis David: “O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.” Isaiah had prophesied, “I will place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open” (22:22) and “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever” (9:6).
O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown” (9:1).
O Rex Gentium: “O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.” Isaiah had prophesied, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (9:5) and “He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (2:4) .
O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (7:14). Remember “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.”
Each of the first words of the Messianic titles were compiled to form a cryptic message for Catholic believers. The Latin anagram, Emmanuel, (Rex) Gentium, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia forms the phrase in Latin, Ego Cras… Tomorrow I come!
The prayer of the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours is really a great illustration of the great anticipation and expectations of the ancient Church’s celebration of Christ’s birth. When we hear such songs as O Come, O Come Emmanuel we need to prayerfully remember the words are rooted in the historical nuances of the Roman Catholic liturgy and not just a secular carol of seasonal celebration.
Most importantly Advent indicates for all Catholic believers the importance associated with Christ’s coming in the Incarnation and as we anticipate every Sunday in the Creed, at the end of chronological time. The words Ego Cras are indeed a joyous reminder of both Christmas joy and the realization of Christ’s eschatological glory at the end of time.