Since the early centuries of Christianity, monks and nuns have sung the Psalms together in community. The 150 Psalms were distributed over weeks or months, so that none were neglected. To make the Psalm appropriate to the season of the year — or even the time of day — the Church has used antiphons.
An antiphon is a brief refrain — usually just a sentence — repeated during the singing or recitation of a Psalm or other song. Sometimes it is simply stated at the beginning and the end of the prescribed text. Most antiphons were Bible verses that emphasized the theme of the Psalm. They were aids to prayer and meditation.
Until the seventh century there was no season of Advent. The new Church year began on Christmas Eve. Then suddenly, around A.D. 690, the Church books began to carry seasonal antiphons for the week before Christmas. Each of these seven antiphons begins with the word “O,” followed by a title for Christ taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: O Wisdom … O Lord … O Root of Jesse … O Key of David … O Dayspring … O King of the Nations … O Emmanuel.
In the high Middle Ages, the O Antiphons were woven into the hymn we know as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — the hymn that has come to define the Church’s longing for Jesus each December.
Mike Aquilina is a contributing editor to Angelus and the author of many books, including “A Joyful Noise: Praying the Psalms with the Early Church” (Emmaus Road, 2017, $20).
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