The Church enters today on the seven days which precede the Vigil of Christmas, and which are known in the Liturgy under the name of the Greater Ferias. The ordinary of the Advent Office becomes more solemn; the antiphons of the psalms, both for Lauds and the Little Hours, are proper, and allude expressly to the great coming. Every day, at Vespers, is sung a solemn antiphon, consisting of a fervent prayer to the Messias, Whom it addresses by one of the titles given Him in the Sacred Scriptures.
In the Roman Church there are seven of these antiphons, one for each of the Greater Ferias. They are commonly called the O Antiphons of Advent, because they all begin with that interjection. In other Churches during the middle ages, two or more were added to these seven; one to Our Blessed Lady, O Virgo virginum, and the other to the Archangel Gabriel, O Gabriel; or to St. Thomas the Apostle, whose Feast comes during the Greater Ferias; it began O Thoma Didyme. There were even Churches where twelve Great Antiphons were sung; that is, besides the nine we have just mentioned: O Rex Pacifice to Our Lord, O mundi Domina to Our Lady, and O Hierusalem to the Holy City.
The canonical Hour of Vespers has been selected as the most appropriate time for this solemn supplication to Our Savior, because, as the Church sings in one of Her hymns, it was in the evening of the world (vergente mundi vespere) that the Messias came amongst us. These antiphons are sung at the Magnificat, to show us that the Savior Whom we expect is to come to us by Mary. They are sung twice, once before and once after the canticle, as on double feasts, and this to show their great solemnity. In some Churches it was formerly the practice to sing them thrice: that is, before the canticle, before the Gloria Patri, and after the Sicut erat. Lastly, these admirable antiphons, which contain the whole pith of the Advent Liturgy, are accompanied by a chant replete with melodious gravity, and by ceremonies of great expressiveness though, in these latter, there is no uniform practice followed. Let us enter into the spirit of the Church; let us reflect on the great day which is coming; that thus we may take our share in these last and most earnest supplications of the Church imploring Her Spouse to come, to which He at length yields.
First Antiphon: O Wisdom, that proceedest from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end mightily, and disposing all things sweetly! Come and teach us the way of prudence.
O uncreated Wisdom, Who art so soon to make Thyself visible to Thy creatures, truly Thou disposest all things. It is by Thy permission that the emperor Augustus issues a decree ordering the enrolment of the whole world. Each citizen of the vast empire is to have his name enrolled in the city of his birth. Men go to and fro by millions, and an unbroken procession traverses the immense Roman world; men think they are doing the bidding of man, and it is God they are obeying. This world-wide agitation has really but one object; it is to bring to Bethlehem a man and Woman who live at Nazareth in Galilee, in order that this Woman, Who is unknown to the world but dear to Heaven, and Who is at the close of the ninth month since She conceived Her Child, may give birth to Him in Bethlehem. For the Prophet has said of Him: His going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity. And thou, O Bethelehem, art not the least among the thousand cities of Juda, for out of thee He shall come (Mich. 5: 2).
Second Antiphon: O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel, Who didst appear to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and didst give him the law on Sinai; come and redeem us by Thy outstretched arm.
O Sovereign Lord, O Adonai, come and redeem us, not by Thy power, but by Thy humility. Heretofore, Thou didst show Thyself to Moses Thy servant in the midst of a mysterious flame; Thou didst give Thy law to Thy people amidst thunder and lightning; now, on the contrary, Thou comest not to terrify, but to save us. Thy chaste Mother having heard the emperor's edict, which obliges Her and Joseph Her Spouse to repair to Bethlehem, prepares everything needed for Thy divine Birth. She prepares for Thee, O Sun of Justice, the humble swathing-bands, wherewith to protect Thee, the Creator of the world, from the cold of that midnight hour of Thy Nativity! Thus it is that Thou willest to deliver us from the slavery of our pride, and show man that Thy divine arm is never stronger than when he thinks it powerless and still. Everything is prepared then, dear Jesus! Come to Bethlehem, and redeem us from the hands of our enemies.
Third Antiphon: O Root of Jesse, Who standest as the ensign of the people; before Whom kings shall not open their lips; to Whom the nations shall pray: come and deliver us; tarry now no more.
At length, O Son of Jesse, Thou art approaching the city of Thy ancestors. The Ark of the Lord has risen, and journeys, with the God that is in Her, to the place of Her rest. How beautiful are Thy steps, O Thou Daughter of the Prince (Cant. 7: 1), now that Thou art bringing to the cities of Juda their salvation! The Angels escort Thee, Thy faithful Joseph lavishes his love upon Thee, Heaven delights in Thee, and our earth thrills with joy to bear thus upon itself its Creator and its Queen. Come then, O Root of Jesse, thus hidden in this Ark of purity; Thou wilt soon appear before Thy people as the standard round which all that would conquer must rally. Then their enemies, the kings of the world, will be silenced, and the nations will offer Thee their prayers. Hasten Thy coming, dear Jesus! Conquer all our enemies, and deliver us.
Fourth Antiphon: O Key of David, and scepter of the House of Israel; Who openest, and no man shutteth: Who shuttest, and no man openeth; come and lead the captive from prison, sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Jesus, Son of David, Heir to his throne and his power! Thou art now passing over, in Thy way to Bethlehem, the land that once was in the kingdom of Thy ancestor, but now is tributary to the Gentiles. Scarce an inch of this ground has not witnessed the miracles of the justice and mercy of Jehovah, Thy Father, to the people of the Old Covenant, which is so soon to end. Before long, when Thou hast come from beneath the virginal cloud which now hides Thee, Thou wilt pass along this same road doing good, healing all manner of sickness and every infirmity, and yet having not where to lay Thy head. Now, at least, Thy Mother's womb affords Thee the sweetest rest, and Thou receivest from Her the profoundest adoration and tenderest love. But dear Jesus, it is Thine own Blessed Will that Thou leavest this beloved abode. Thou hast, O eternal Light, to shine in the midst of this world's darkness, this prison where the captive, whom Thou hast come to deliver sits in the shadow of death. Open his prison-gates by Thy all-powerful key. And who is this captive, but the human race, the slave of error and vice? Who is this captive, but the heart of man, which is prey to the very passions it blushes to obey? O come and set at liberty the world Thou hast enriched by Thy grace, and the creatures whom Thou hast made to be Thine own brethren.
Fifth Antiphon: O Orient, Splendor of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice; come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Jesus, divine Sun! Thou art coming to snatch us from eternal night; blessed forever be Thine infinite goodness! But Thou puttest our faith to the test, before showing Thyself in all Thy brightness. Thou hidest Thy rays, until the time decreed by Thy Heavenly Father comes, in which all Thy beauty will break upon the world. Thou art traversing Judea; Thou art near Jerusalem; the journey of Mary and Joseph is nigh its term. Crowds of men pass or meet Thee on the road, each one hurrying to his native town, there to be enrolled, as the edict commands. Not one of all these suspects that Thou, O Divine Orient, art so near him. They see Thy Mother Mary, and they see nothing in Her above the rest of women; or if they are impressed by the majesty and incomparable modesty of this august Queen, it is but a vague feeling of surprise at there being such dignity in one so poor as She is; and they soon forget Her again. If the Mother is thus an object of indifference to them, it is not to be expected that they will give even so much as a thought to Her Child, that is not yet born. And yet this Child is Thyself, O Sun of Justice! O increase our faith, but increase too, our love. If these men loved Thee, O Redeemer of mankind, Thou wouldst give them the grace to feel Thy presence. Their eyes, indeed, would not yet see Thee, but their hearts, at least, would burn within them; they would long for Thy coming, and would hasten it by their prayers and sighs. Dearest Jesus, Who thus traversest the world Thou hast created, and who forcest not the homage of Thy creatures, we wish to keep near Thee during the rest of this Thy journey: we kiss the footsteps of Her that carries Thee in Her womb; we will not leave Thee, until we arrive together with Thee at Bethlehem, that House of Bread, where at last our eyes will see Thee, O Splendor of Eternal Light, our Lord and our God!
Sixth Antiphon: O King of nations and their desired One, and the Corner-stone that makest both one; come and save man whom Thou didst form out of slime.
O King of nations! Thou art approaching still nearer to Bethlehem, where Thou art to be born. The journey is almost over, and Thy august Mother, consoled and strengthened by the dear weight She bears, holds an unceasing converse with Thee on the way. She adores Thy divine Majesty; She gives thanks to Thy mercy; She rejoices that She has been chosen for the sublime ministry of being Mother to God. She longs for that happy moment when Her eyes shall look upon Thee, and yet She fears it. For how will She be able to render Thee those services which are due to Thy infinite greatness, She that thinks Herself the last of creatures! How will She dare to raise Thee up in Her arms and press Thee to Her heart? When She reflects that the hour is now near at hand, in which, being born of Her, Thou wilt require all Her care and tenderness, Her heart sinks within her; for what human heart could bear the intense vehemence of these two affections – the love of such a Mother for Her Babe, and the love of such a creature for Her God? But Thou supportest Her, O Thou the Desired of nations! For Thou, too, longest for that happy Birth, which is to give to the earth its Savior, and to men that corner-stone, which will unite them all into one family. Come and save us, for we are dear to Thee, as creatures that have been formed by Thy Divine Hands.
Seventh Antiphon: O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expectation and Savior of the Nations; come and save us, O Lord our God!
O Emmanuel! King of Peace! Thou enterest today the city of Thy predilection, the city in which Thou hast placed Thy temple – Jerusalem. A few years hence the same city will give Thee Thy Cross and Thy Sepulcher: nay, the day will come on which Thou wilt set up Thy judgment-seat within sight of her walls. But today Thou enterest the city of David and Solomon unnoticed and unknown. It lies on Thy road to Bethlehem. Thy Blessed Mother and Joseph Her Spouse would not lose the opportunity of visiting the temple, there to offer to the Lord their prayers and adoration. They enter; and then, for the first time, is accomplished the prophecy of Aggeus, that great shall be the glory of this last house more than of the first (Agg. 2: 10); for this second temple has now standing within it an ark of the Covenant more precious than was that which Moses built; and within this ark, which is Mary, is contained the God Whose presence makes Her the holiest of sanctuaries. The Lawgiver Himself is in the Blessed Ark, and not merely, as in that of old, the tablet of stone on which the Law was graven. The visit paid, our living Ark descends the steps of the temple, and sets out for Bethlehem, where other prophecies are to be fulfilled. And now, the hour is near; all is ready for Thy birth; come then and save us, that Thou mayest not only be called our Emmanuel, but our Jesus, that is, He Who saves us.
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