Late Advent with the Cistercian Fathers – O Antiphons Revisited

The octave before the feast of Christmas has always been marked by the singing of the Great “O” Antiphons, usually with the Magnificat (Song of Mary) at the office of Vespers.  These wonderful antiphons, short but rich texts, draw together phrases from the sacred scriptures of the Old Testament, a prophetic voice looking forward to the coming of the Messiah and fulfilled in the incarnation and nativity of Christ Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary.  As we offer you these beautiful texts we would like to complement each with a word or two from our Cistercian Fathers, whose experience of the Christ Child born in them gave them never ending opportunities for song.

17th December – O Sapientia

O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High.  You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner.  O come to teach us the way of truth.

Let us hear what the Voice of the Word calls to us, so that one day we may progress from the Voice to the Word.  “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he says, “make straight his paths.”  He prepares the way who amends his life; he makes straight the path who directs his footsteps along the narrow way.  An amended life is certainly the straight road by which the Lord, who in this very conversion is already there before us, may come to us.  For indeed it is by the Lord that the steps of a man are directed, and he wants the road to be such that coming along it joyfully towards man he may continually walk with him.  For unless he who is the Life, the Truth and the Way anticipates his own advent in us, our way cannot be corrected to the model of truth, and so cannot be directed to the way of eternity.  O that my ways may be directed by keeping your ways, O Lord, so that because of the words from your lips I may follow even difficult ways.  (Guerric of Igny, Fourth Sermon for Advent)

18th December – O Adonai

O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in a burning bush and you gave him the law on Sinai.  O come and save us with your mighty power.

How is it, I ask, that God’s first answer to Moses’ question was, ‘I Am Who I Am,’ and, ‘I Am has sent you’?  I doubt if even Moses himself would have grasped its import if it had not been poured out.  But it was poured and he understood it; and not only poured out, for an inward pouring had already occurred: the citizens of heaven already possessed it, the angels knew it.

And what an outpouring!  It not only bathes the heavens and the earth, it even bedews the underworld, so that all beings in heaven, on earth and in the underworld should bend the knee in the name of Jesus, and that every tongue should acclaim, ‘Your name is oil poured out.’  Take the name Christ, take the name Jesus.  How precious your name, and yet how cheap!  Cheap, but the instrument of salvation.  If it were not cheap it would not have been poured out for me; if it lacked saving power it would not have won me.  Made a sharer in the name, I too share in its inheritance.  For I am a Christian, Christ’s own brother.  If I am what I say, I am the heir of God, co-heir with Christ.  And what wonder if the name of the Bridegroom is poured out?  For he emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.  The fullness of the divine life was poured out and lived on earth in bodily form, that all of us who live in this body doomed to death may receive from that fullness, and being filled with its life-giving odour say, ‘Your name is poured out’.  Such is what is meant by the outpouring of the name, such its manner, such its extent.

How shall we explain the world-wide light of faith, swift and flaming in its progress, except by the preaching of Jesus’ name?  Is it not by the light of this name that God has called us into his wonderful light, that irradiates our darkness and enables us to see the light.  But the name of Jesus is more than light, it is also food.  Do you not feel increase of strength as often as you remember it?  What other name can so enrich the man who meditates?  What can equal its power to enrich the harassed senses, to buttress the virtues, to add vigour to good and upright habits, to foster chaste affections?  Every food of the mind is dry if it is not dipped in that oil; it is tasteless if not seasoned by that salt.  Write what you will, I shall not relish it unless it tells of Jesus.  Talk or argue about what you will, I shall not relish it if you exclude the name of Jesus.  Jesus to me is honey in the mouth, music in the ear, a song in the heart.  (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 15 on the Song of Songs)

19th December – O Radix Jesse

O stock of Jesse, you stand as a signal for the nations; kings fall silent before you whom the peoples acclaim.  O come to deliver us, and do not delay.

I think it is already clear who is the shoot coming forth from the root of Jesse, and who is the flower on which the Holy Spirit rests.  For the shoot is the Virgin Mother of God; the flower her Son.  Assuredly the Virgin’ Son is the flower, a flower radiant and ruddy, chosen out of thousands, a flower into which the angels long to gaze, a flower whose fragrance brings the dead back to life, a flower of the field, as he testifies, not of the garden.  The field blossoms without any human assistance – not sown by anyone, not dug with a hoe, not fertilized with manure.  Thus indeed, thus did the Virgin’s womb flower, thus did Mary’s inviolate, untouched and chaste womb bring forth, as from an eternally verdant pasture, a flower whose beauty would see no corruption and whose glory would never fade.  

O Virgin, O lofty shoot, to what holy heights do you sublimely rise!  Even al, the way up to the One seated on the throne, even to the Lord of majesty!  Nor is this strange, for you send the roots of your humility down into the depths.  O truly heavenly twig, more precious and more holy than all others!  O truly tree of life, which alone was worthy to bear the fruit of salvation!  (Bernard of Clairvaux, Second Sermon for Advent

20th December – O Clavis David

O key of David and sceptre of Israel, what you open no one can close again; what you close no one can open.  O come to lead the captive from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O Lord, this height, this depth, this wisdom and this ight, are these the heaven of which you are the door?  It is so, truly; that is why the ark of the covenant was seen in heaven when the door was opened, as St John says.  For what does the ark of the covenant which was seen in heaven mean, if not the dispensation of the mystery, which from the beginning has been hidden in God who created all things?  You are yourself the ark.  In you from all eternity was hidden, and in you in these latter days has been fulfilled, all that from the beginning of the world has been revealed to all the saints and prophets by the Law and by the prophecies, by wonders and by signs.  You are the ark in which every part is covered with pure gold; for the fullness of God’s Wisdom rested on you and invested you completely with its glory.  In you is the vessel of gold which contains the manna, the holy and spotless soul in which the fullness of the Godhead dwelt corporeally.  In you is Aaron’s rod that budded, the dignity of the eternal priesthood.  In you are the tables of the covenant, by which the world is made heir of your grace, and the nations are made co inheritors and fellow-heirs and sharers of your promise.  Above all these things are the bright cherubim, the plenitude of knowledge; but they are not above them because of their own excellence and worth, but rather as needing to be carried and upheld by them; their overshadowing of the mercy seat testifies to the incomprehensibility of the mysteries of your atoning grace.

Open, O Lord, the ark-door of your side, that all your own who shall be saved may enter in, before this flood that overwhelms the earth.  Open to us your body’s side, that those who long to see the secrets of your Son may enter in, and may receive the sacraments that flow therefrom, even the price of their redemption.  Open the door of your heaven, that your redeemed may see the good things of God in the land of the living.  The way is the example of your lowliness; the truth the patter of your purity; the life is eternal life.

O good Father, loving Brother, and sweet Lord, you are all that is good and sweet and loving; the sum of goodness overflows in you.  Open yourself to us, that your sweetness may flow forth from you to us, and fill us.  (William of St Thierry, Meditation Six)

21st December – O Oriens 

O Rising Sun, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice.  O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Light exists for serenity, peace for tranquillity, the spring for abundance and eternity.  Take the spring as being the Father, from whom the Son is born and the Holy Spirit proceeds; the light as being the Son, who is the brightness of eternal life and the true light that enlightens everyone coming into this world; and peace as being the Holy Spirit, who rests especially on the quiet and the humble.  Nor do I say this as if these are the exclusive properties of each person, for the Father too is light – so that the Son is light from light.  And the Son too is peace, who has made both into one.  And the Holy Spirit too is a spring of water gushing forth to eternal life.  (St Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon Four for Christmas Eve)

22nd December – O Rex

O King whom all the peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one.  O come and save man whom you made from clay.

Let us see him, let us contemplate him, let us not be scandalized like the Jews because of his littleness.  Nor let us be condemned along with evil Christians who hold him in contempt.  Rather let us console ourselves with the very tiny Jesus because he has been made so small for us.  Together with the perfect, let us imitate him as much as we are able, because he has himself tempered his works to the measure of our ability.  There is no room for anyone to excuse himself.  Let no one consider that I am speaking here of works of divine power, but of those that God did when he assumed our weakness.

Let us who are lowly see him lowly in this world; then we will be secure when we see him in judgment.  You, who have passed over the pleasures of this world, its secular riches and deceitful honours, you who now see this very small, humble Jesus, you who are yourselves now small and humble, you will then see his sweet face, you will hear his most tender voice: Come you blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.  Then you will enter into that Kingdom, and you will see Jesus, sweet and amiable.  For then you will be his spouse, prepared and ornamented, worthy of his embrace, because she is without stain or wrinkle.  Then she will taste the great abundance of his sweetness, already poured out on the one who loves perfectly, that sweetness still hidden in this life for those who fear.

O my friends, what will that glory be, what that peace, that blessedness, that security, that joy, that sweetness, which the eye has not seen nor the ear heard nor the human heart conceived!  (Aelred of Rievaulx, Sermon for the Nativity of the Lord)

23rd December – O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the One whom the people await and their Saviour.  O come and save us, Lord, our God.

We shall see the majesty of God, not in itself but “in us”: majesty in humility, power in weakness, God in a human being.  He is Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.  Listen to something clearer still: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  From then on and henceforward, we have seen his glory, but the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father; we have seen him full of grace and truth.  We have seen him, not the glory of power and splendour, but the glory of fatherly loving-kindness, the glory of grace, of which the Apostle says, In the prairie of the glory of his grace. 

So that is how he is born.  But where, do you think?  In Bethlehem of Judah.  It would not become us to pass by Bethlehem.  What if it is a poor little village?  What if it seems the least in Judea?  This is no unbefitting the One who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor, and though he was a great Lord and greatly to be praised, was born a little child for us.  If only we too may be found a Bethlehem of Judah, that he may deign to be born within us too, and that we may be worthy to hear, “For you who fear God, the Sun of Righteousness will rise!”  According to the prophet, Judea became his holiness, which means that everything is washed clean in confession; and the “the house of bread” – which “Bethlehem” means – will perhaps seem to particularly suggest preparation.  We know that bread strengthens the human heart.  The heart of someone who forgets to eat his bread is not prepared, but dry and bloodless.  Someone who, forgetful of what lies behind, strains forward to what lies ahead – that person is prepared and not troubled at keeping the commandments of life.  (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon Six for Christmas Eve)

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