One of the wonderful aspects of the Western liturgy that the Lutheran church has inherited is the retention of the Magnificat antiphons. The Magnificat, the canticle sung by Mary in Luke 1:46–55, is sung at Vespers every day, and it is bookended by an antiphon proper to the day. These antiphons place the Magnificat within the context of the liturgical year. The most beautiful of the Magnificat antiphons are the so-called “Great O Antiphons,” which are sung on each of the last seven days prior to Christmas (beginning on December 17 every year). These ancient, magnificent chants each highlight a specific Messianic prophecy, ending with an entreaty that the Messiah would “come and…” accomplish something relating to that prophecy.
FLC’s final Vespers in Advent 2018 will be on December 19, and so the cantor will chant the proper Great O Antiphon for the day, “O radix Jesse”:
O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek: come and deliver us, and tarry not.
This antiphon recalls Isaiah’s prophecy (ch. 11) that “there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people… and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth… And there shall be an highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left… like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.” This remarkable prophecy applies directly and specifically to Christ and to His Church, which is become through baptism God’s chosen people, the spiritual descendant of Israel: God will indeed deliver His Church, scattered across the earth, to Himself just as He delivered Israel out of Egypt.
These beautiful Antiphons were made by John Mason Neale into the familiar hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (LSB 357): each stanza is a versification of one of the O Antiphons. That these Antiphons were intended to be comprehended all together within the context of the waning days of Advent is evident from the fact that their Latin titles form a significant reverse acrostic. In reverse order, they are: O Emmanuel—O Rex Gentium—O Oriens—O Clavis David—O Radix Jesse—O Adonai—O Sapientia. The acrostic forms the Latin words ERO CRAS: “I will be tomorrow.”
You are most encouraged to pray the Great O Antiphons yourself, partaking in this ancient, venerable tradition of the Church. They can be found most readily in LSB, on the page opposite Neale’s hymn, and pointed for use with the LSB psalm tones. To sing them with their haunting Gregorian melodies, you may use the Brotherhood Prayer Book.