O key, O king, O root, O mystical name. O Wisdom, O virgin, O Lord.
They are riddles in prayer, woven around the canticles of the daily office from December 17 (or 16) to December 23 every year.
The O Antiphons come at the end of Advent to tie together the prophetic hopes of a people who have waited not for just three or four weeks for the coming of the Lord, but for whole centuries. There is no knowing now why these particular ancient hints about Bethlehem were chosen instead of any number of others. But there is a kind of perfect internal coherence to the seven (or eight) we have. They tell us to be patient just a little while longer, and describe the wonders in store on the other side of Christmas Eve. At the same time, they implore Jesus-to-be-born to tarry not, come quickly, come soon.
We look forward to the antiphons in their own right each year, because their appearance on the calendar means that we can quicken our own hopes in anticipation of the Saviour’s birth. Their arrival is much like seeing a familiar highway exit still just a little way away from home, or a train stop not far from one’s intended destination. They comfort, heighten, calm and focus, but they are also direct and demanding.
In English as it is spoken in our communities, the vocative O is never used in the same way we see it here. Thankfully, liturgical language preserves a kind of impatient address for us with the O, opening our mouths and our eyes at the same time as we talk to a person. When we sing and pray, the O is followed often by the petition for someone to come and join us: O come, let us sing unto the Lord. O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, all ye faithful. The O — and these Os — arranges our mouths and hopes around specific persons and special ends.
We had not noticed before this year that in addition to bringing together Hebrew prophecies about the coming of the Christ Child, the antiphons include a substantial pre- Christmas wish-list. When we pray them, we ask — not always disguising our impatience very well — for instruction in the way of prudence; for redemption with an outstretched arm; for deliverance; for the release of prisoners out of the prison house; for enlightenment and for salvation. There is not a bicycle or toy train set in sight, nor a giftcard, nor clothing, nor even an iPod. The Os pull together the Church’s voice of prayer in supplication for prophetic and apocalyptic intangibles. And still, when we are finished praying them, we must wait a little more. Waiting becomes a positive good in the Os, a thing to be undertaken and even enjoyed not for its own sake, but for the sake of the One to be born at the end of the waiting.
Yet the Os themselves already contain an answer to the riddled petitions they embody. Written out together across a page in Latin, the initial consonants of the antiphons (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia) form a reverse acrostic spelling Ero cras — I will be there tomorrow. And so they make for that generous and rare thing, a prayer to God that is its own answer from God.