As Jeff Marlett commented last week on this page, now is an opportune time for Christians to draw again to the well of Christ; who is our spiritual drink in the desert of this world. One of the beauties of the liturgical calendar, in this regard, is that its regularity and cyclical nature points us continuously back to the mysteries of the faith. Amid natural, social, and political disturbances, the calendar always reminds of the unchanging and eternal nature of God. And that this God does not forsake us to the seemingly haphazard and tumultuous events of history. Rather, He entered human history in order to sanctify it, to draw us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with each other.
Channeling the beginning of Dr. Marlett’s last post, then, I would state: “in case you missed it,” we’ve begun a new liturgical year! The first Sunday of Advent marks the start of every liturgical year and, perhaps now in a most needed way, directs us to anticipate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. By commemorating the anticipation of his arrival, we are reliving the history of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers, i.e., ancient Israel. In many and various ways, the liturgical celebrations of the Church remind us of this communion we have with ancient Israel. Just as they longed for the coming of the Messiah, so too do we anticipate his return. And not only us but, as St. Paul vividly and strikingly phrases it, “the whole of creation has been groaning with labor pains together” (Rom 8:22) in anticipation of redemption.
A key word which is often used in the study of liturgy is anamnesis. While this word literally means “remembering,” in a liturgical context it does not simply mean this. In Christian worship, anamnesis refers to “making the past a present and lived reality by remembering.” One way that we Catholics do this during Advent is by reciting – ideally, chanting – the “O Antiphons.”
The “O Antiphons” are those antiphons sung for the Magnificat during vespers between December 17th and 23rd. They all petition the coming of the Lord using a foreshadowed title for Christ found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though these titles appear scattered throughout the OT, they can also all be found somewhere is the book of Isaiah. For example, the “O Antiphon” for December 17th asks: “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge” (cf. Is 11:2; 28:29; Wis 8:1; Sir 24:3). Here is the beginning of each “O Antiphon”:
December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dawn)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O God with Us)
Significantly, when the first letter of title is taken in reverse order it spells out E-R-O-C-R-A-S. In Latin, ero cras translates as: “I will be [there] tomorrow.” Thus, like the disciples before Pentecost (Lk 24:49), we await the fulfillment of the promise of the Lord.
By reciting the “O Antiphons” we make ancient Israel’s anticipation of the arrival of the Savior our own. With them we pray: Maranatha, “Come, Lord” (1 Cor 16:22). And like them, as today’s Gospel reading reminds us, we should be prepared for his arrival. “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44).
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.