by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
If you want to lean into Christmas then sing a song! If you want to lean into tradition, then sing an Antiphon! Sing scripture! Antiphons are short praises that surround a Psalm or another selection of scripture. They are like bookends for the text. Everyone says or sings the antiphon before and repeats it after the Psalm. Antiphons help everyone “sync up” with the singing key, the timing, and sometimes balance a Psalm, a prayer, that is angry, violent, or obscure to us because it’s about the Hebrew Temple rites; or an Antiphon “corrects” a passage of scripture by bringing it in line with our lives and times, and the season – in this case, Christmas. Antiphons make sure the people praise God while they sing scripture. And – antiphons can be very beautiful.
Several Lakelanders were at Conception Abbey last weekend for Gen 5 retreat, and most of us pray with the monks during their Divine Hours (the daily office of chanting the Psalms five times a day). Before dinner the monks pray Vespers (comes from the old or middle English, “Venus,” the appearance of the Evening Star), and after several Psalms are prayed, the monks sing Mary’s Song, the Magnificat (Latin for the first words of the Song, “O Magnify…”):
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever. (Lk 1:46-55)
We asked the question, “Why do the prayers change on December 17th?” Beginning December 17, the Catholic church gets serious about Christ’s coming. The have seven Antiphons. Each one begins with “O”:
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
—From Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers
Look at the Christmas themes for each day: 17th Wisdom of God in the Old Testament (Proverbs), 18th the Law of Moses, 19th Jesus’ ancestors – Jesse, King David’s father… Jesus!, 20th Key – unlocks the gates of Hell (so to speak), 21st the Dawn, the light has come!, 22nd Christ, King of human meaning, 23rd “Emmanuel” which means “God save us.” We Protestants can be serious about preparing for Christmas too.
This would make a nice table decoration, or mantle decoration: have the kids think up icons or symbols for each theme: Wisdom, Ten Commandments (Law), Promise (lineage), Key, Dawn, King, and Salvation. Can you think of symbols to decorate a centerpiece? How about a paper chain, one link for each? Or here’s an idea: play the Magnificat during dinner or in the evening. Here’s some songs…
Chris Lea & Micah Burdick, The Magnificat (Mary’s Song) Lakeland Community Church
The Magnificat (Mary’s Song)
The Brilliance, Mary’s Lullaby – off the Advent vol. 2 album
Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings, The Magnificat – Songs from Jacob’s Well, Vol. 1 album
BTW, the feature image is Matisse. I took this photo in the Vatican last month. Matisse always erased and erased and erased – look for his erasure lines in this huge cartoon of Mary and infant Jesus.