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Beginning Advent With Gabriel, Zechariah, and Mary

23 November 2023

Beginning Advent With Gabriel, Zechariah, & Mary

By Joey Belleza

The Gospel of Luke is notable for, among other things, its rather attentive narratives concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary during the infancy and youth of our Lord. The stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation to Elizabeth, the finding of Christ in the Temple, and the Nativity itself all manifest such detail that, as many scholars (including Pope Benedict XVI) have theorized, these accounts were likely given directly from the Blessed Mother to Saint Luke. The phrase “Mary pondered all these things and kept them in her heart,” repeated twice in Chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel, suggests not only Luke’s voice interpolated into Mary’s recounting of her memories; it more importantly points to the same silent, faithful humility of the Lord’s handmaiden who believed the words of the archangel Gabriel.

Luke presents two parallel stories– two annunciations, in fact– in Chapter 1: the first is the annunciation of the coming of John the Baptist to Zechariah in the Temple, and the second is the Annunciation properly speaking, that is, the message of the angel to Mary. In both stories, Gabriel surprises the two respective interlocutors with surprising news: to Zechariah he announces the pregnancy of his elderly wife Elizabeth; to Mary he announces her role in the coming of the Messiah. In each case, the truth of the message is so strange that both must ask, “how can this be?” Elizabeth is elderly and Mary is a virgin; how can either be pregnant? This leads to another problem. Zechariah is struck dumb for his unbelief, but Mary’s question is met with a further explanation from the angel. Why is Gabriel more patient with Mary than with Zechariah?

One reason, we might suggest, turns on the fact that Zechariah is a priest, but Mary is a young girl. The former has given his life to the service of God in the Temple, a service which required profound study of the Law and Prophets. Certainly the appearance of the angel within the temple would be a terrifying sight, enough to fluster any man, but in comparison to a young girl from Nazareth, we can still say that Zechariah simply should have known better. Already faced with the extraordinary apparition of a divine messenger, he nevertheless protests the content of the message by appealing to its improbability. Note that Zechariah says, “my wife is advanced in years,” not “my wife has passed her childbearing years.” His own words are not an indication of impossibility, and the story of Abraham and Sarah, who conceived in old age, should have been proof enough for this educated priest that the angel’s message could and would be fulfilled. Mary, on the other hand, is faced with a situation of true natural impossibility. A virgin cannot conceive except by some divine power exceeding the power of natural generation, a power now explained to her by the angel. Her question is therefore one of mere natural reason, not true doubt. And when the divine reason is pronounced to her, she conforms her will to God’s and consents to participate in the Incarnation of Christ.

Notice also that the angel says that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before Zechariah’s objection, while the power of the Holy Spirit is explained to Mary only after her naturally reasonable question. It is perhaps this momentary doubt of the power of the Spirit–who is, in fact, truly God–that condemns Zechariah to temporary muteness. In this light, we might be able to understand Christ’s own words in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, where he mentions that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is the only unforgiveable sin. Zechariah certainly does not blaspheme, but his questioning of the Spirit who, as the Creed says, is “Lord and giver of life”, certainly did the priest no credit. Mary, on the other hand, is really given little information–far less than the poetic prophecy initially given to Zechariah in the Temple. But her trust in God and conformity to his will supplies for the limits of her human understanding.

As the season of Advent begins, the parallels and contrasts between the “two annunciations” might teach us something about trusting in God. With the benefit of 2000 years since the Incarnation, we are in many ways like Zechariah. We should know better. We already know that Christ came to us as a child, died as a man, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now continues his work on earth through the Church and her Sacraments. But despite this enduring presence, we still have moments when we let our doubt and our merely natural ways of thinking overcome our confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we allow ourselves to fall into this doubt, we too fall “dumb” like Zechariah, closed off from the divine wisdom, struggling in vain to bring God down to our ways of thinking. Christ rebuked Peter for this very sin– “thinking as men think, not as God thinks”– when he prophesised his Passion and death. But the Blessed Virgin Mary excels all human creatures, for when she is pushed to the limits of her own understanding, she utters not a word of protest but a word of faith in the God who had already brought forth life in the wombs of Sarah and Elizabeth. And with her word of faith, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Let us look forward to the coming of Christ the Lord, Son of God and Son of Mary, with her same expectant faith.

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Advent & O Antiphons

23 November 2023

Advent & the O Antiphons

By Joey Belleza

As the Church begins a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent, many parishes all over the English-speaking world will mark this change in through the singing of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Mass. But the origins of this beloved hymn arise from the ancient Church; the sixth century martyr Saint Boethius references these texts in his famous and final work Consolation of Philosophy (written as he awaited execution in 523 AD), meaning that these texts were already widely circulated in the fifth century or earlier. They did not yet take the form of a unified hymn, but in the form of seven separate antiphons which invoke Christ under seven different titles, asking Him to return again. These are the “O Antiphons,” so called because each one begins with the vocative ‘O’.

The sequence of O Antiphons is as follows: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), O Emmanuel. Traditionally, each of these was assigned respectively to the last seven days before Christmas, beginning on 17 December (O Sapientia) end ending on the 23 December (O Emmanuel). While the composer of the O Antiphons remains unknown, the author must have been highly literate with a poetic spirit; a feature of the O Antiphons considered together is that, when the first letter of each title is read in reverse order, an acrostic phrase is revealed: “ERO CRAS,” meaning “I will be there tomorrow.” Since the sequence ends on the evening of the 23rd, the anticipation of Christ’s arrival on Christmas Eve is subtly referenced in the antiphons. Furthermore, each antiphon makes use of several scriptural references. To give just a few examples, let us consider the first two antiphons, O Sapientia and O Adonai.

O Sapientia,
quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter
suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

“O Wisdom, who came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end with strength and sweetly ordering all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.”

This antiphon references the following scriptural passages: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3); “[Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1); “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence” (Proverbs 9:6). 

O Adonai,
et dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord and chief of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the Law on Mount Sinai: come to redeem us with your outstretched arm.”

This antiphon references the following scriptural passages: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3); “[Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1); “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence” (Proverbs 9:6). 

This references the following passages: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name ‘The Lord’ (Adonai) I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:2-3); “the chief over my people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:5); “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” (Exodus 3:2); “These are the commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34); “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:6).

As we can see in these two examples, the anonymous author has done a wondrous job of recalling images from the Old Testament, and invoking them to link the coming of Christ with the saving acts of God under the covenant made with Abraham. This style of composition continues with the rest of the antiphons, showing how the events of salvation history given to Israel all find their fulfilment in the Incarnation of Christ.

But why are they not all sung at once, as when we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in English? Why are they assigned to different days?

The O Antiphons are special because of their original place in the liturgy; that is, they were the antiphons for the Magnificat, which is sung at Vespers each day. For the days 17-23 December, in recognition of the Marian character of the season, these antiphons which express hope for the coming of Christ were matched with Mary’s own prayer of expectation for her Son. Thus, the O Antiphons themselves assume a kind of Marian character at the moment in the liturgical year when the Church most eagerly anticipates the celebration of Christmas as well as the Second Coming of Christ. When we sing the O Antiphons as the Church intends, we too enter into the mode of hopeful expectation, as did the Blessed Virgin, that Christ will come once again into the world, “to teach us the way of prudence” and “to redeem us with an outstretched arm.”

To hear the O Antiphons as sung in the Church for centuries, including the Magnificat, see the video below by the Dominican Friars of Fribourg, Switzerland. All the antiphons are available on their Youtube channel.

For more about each O Antiphon, see our previous posts here: (1) O Sapientia, (2) O Adonai, (3) O Radix Jesse, (4) O Clavis David, (5) O Oriens, (6) O Rex Gentium, (7) O Emmanuel.

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Advent with St Anthony: Perseverance

22nd December, 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Perseverance

In this final Advent reflection, Gabriel Stirling looks at what St Anthony the Great can teach us about preserving in the faith.

‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’ – Gospel of St Matthew, 11.7

Advent will soon be over and Christmas will begin. As the Gloria returns to Mass, Christians across the globe will gather to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. 

At the same time, the change of the season brings to an end this series of blogs. 

We conclude with the death of St Anthony of Egypt. Aged 105 and having spent most of his life in the seclusion of the mountains, he left his monastery for one last time, heading to spend eternity with God.

Before his death, St Anthony spoke to his fellow monks, calling them to prepare “zealously” in hope of the return of Our Lord. Warning of “the treachery of the demons”, he nonetheless reassures them to “Fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him.” 

St Anthony spoke from harsh experience. During the past few weeks, these blogs have delved into the spiritual torment which the monk endured at the hands of the Devil. In this 15th century Italian painting, St Anthony is shown being tempted by the promise of Gold. But trusting in God, St Anthony was delivered from the pit of sin.

As Christmas begins and passes, it might be easy to forget the lessons learned from Advent. But through the changing seasons, the message shown in the Holy Scriptures and by the lives of the Saints remains the same. The looming sense of preparation that defines Advent has value throughout our life.

Owing to this is the fact that we are in dire need of preparation. The threat of sin is one which we all face, a point graphically illustrated by St Anthony during the last few weeks. As St John puts it candidly in his First Epistle, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

Yet we are not without hope. At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of the Incarnate Word and the hope which he brought into the world. This hope remains with us in the Church, which as the bride of Christ, prepares sinners to spend eternity with God. Her sacraments – and the Eucharist in particular – provide us with real hope that we might be reconciled to God.

Saint Anthony the Abbot Tempted by a Heap of Gold, Master of Osservanza

Therefore, the message of Advent is not a seasonal fixture that comes and goes like the latest TikTok trend. Our life forms its own extended Advent, a sense of constant preparation. This might seem a tall order. The world – and indeed our own lives – can feel irretrievably broken. But as one popular hymn reminds us, Christ offers us real hope of everlasting peace:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Wishing you all a warm and Holy Christmas.

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Advent with St Anthony: Penance

8th December 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Penance

The second post in a series of blogs by Gabriel Stirling exploring the relationship between penance and Advent

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ – Matthew 3:1-2 

Of all the Christian Feasts, it is Christmas that has become most embraced for materialist ends. In many shops, Christmas goods were out on the shelves before All Saints Day. But like a voice crying out in the desert, the Saints remind us to reclaim Advent in the name of penance. 

Penance is a big part of our Lenten preparations, but why should we embrace it ahead of Christmas? Should we not spend these next few weeks consuming material goods ahead of the big day, with moments of merriment intertwined? 

On the contrary, it is an essential part of our conversion and a fitting virtue for this liturgical season.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, St John the Baptist recalls the prophet Isaiah, who reminds his followers to “prepare the way for the Lord”. With Christ’s ministry imminent, it is possible to get a sense of the urgency with which St John the Baptist preached. This command stands for posterity, and in Advent, we are likewise called to prepare for the Kingdom of God. 

St Anthony of Egypt understood this urgency. Facing the torments of demons, he embraced a life devoted to fasting, prayer and poverty. The Egyptian hermit lived off bread, salt and water, sleeping on the bare floor. The demons could not cope with such devotion; they left St Anthony, recoiling in anguish.

Addressing his fellow monks, St Anthony reminded them that penance is an aid in spiritual combat against evil. “Demons”,  he states, “fear the fasting, the sleeplessness, the prayers, the meekness, the quietness, the contempt of money and vainglory, the humility, the love of the poor, the alms, the freedom from anger of the ascetics”.

Unable to stand against a truly penitent soul, the Evil One cries out in defeat.

Advent is partly about preparing us for Christmas. But look beyond the twelve days of Christmas and can see the eternity that awaits us in Heaven. The liturgy in Advent emphasises the return of Christ at the end of this world, encouraging us to think beyond our life on earth. Penance puts this anticipation into practice.

There is no obligation for penance during Advent. But the Church still recommends it as a way of preparing for Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox refer to Advent as the Nativity Fast, further emphasising these penitential themes. 


St Anthony’s dedication and faithfulness was extraordinary. But the lengths he went to should not discourage Christians. Not many of us will find our vocation as a hermit in the Egyptian wilderness. However, through penance, our souls are led away from evil and reconciled to God. 

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jan Wellens de Cock

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Advent with St Anthony of Egypt: Preparation

25th November 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Preparation

The first post in a series of blogs by Gabriel Stirling that will explore what lessons St Anthony of Egypt can teach us about the season of Advent.

‘Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect’ – St Matthew, 24:44

During Advent, we are reminded not only of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but also of Christ’s Second Coming. This is a theme found throughout Sacred Scripture, as well as in the lives of the Saints. In particular, the life of the founder of monasticism, St Anthony of Egypt, offers us the chance to reflect on how we should prepare for the return of Our Lord.  

St Anthony was born in around 250 AD in Roman-ruled Egypt. A faithful believer from a young age, it was this devotion that made him a target for the Devil, who inflicted greater and greater torments on St Anthony. Not surrendering to the Evil One, he ventured into the tombs that inhabit the barren Egyptian landscape, to live a life dedicated to penance and solitude.

It was here in the barren wilderness that St Anthony entered into spiritual combat with the Devil. According to one account, he found himself subjected to the torments of demons who tried, but failed, to posess his body. The Devil tempted him with food and other material comforts, things that the hermit had surrendered.  But St Anthony was able to persevere in the face of these trials, strengthened through the grace of God. The demons eventually left him, defeated and demoralised. 

This retreat into the wilderness was not out of a desire for spiritual enlightenment or self-improvement. Instead, St Anthony saw it as a place of preparation before coming face to face with Christ. Speaking to his fellow monks, he said that that, by leading the contemplative life, they would be ‘ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment’. For St Anthony, the end goal of this ascetic life was to find his soul ready to meet with God.

St Anthony reminds us that the true focus of any Christian life should be one of preparation. In finding a place of relative peace, we can call upon God to help us with whatever spiritual trials that we face. Admittedly, finding a wilderness to prepare in is difficult when confronted with the noise of modern life. But quiet spaces still do exist, be it in praying the Rosary at home, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or attending a weekday Mass in church. In these moments, we surrender ourselves to God and receive a foretaste of the glory of Heaven.

The Tourment of St Anthony, a late-15th century painting attributed to Michelangelo

Advent offers us the chance to break the cycle of sin before the joyous festivities of Christmas. But perhaps more significantly, the life of St Anthony calls on us to prepare beyond Advent. Following his example, let us resolve to listen to God’s call and prepare our soul for the Kingdom of Christ.

Source: Life of St Anthony, St Athanasius/New Advent


Advent: Watching for What?

1st December 2021

Advent: Watching for What?

Stefan Kaminski

By the time we enter Advent, the commercial world has already well-established a Christmas atmosphere with trees, decorations, and all sorts of enticing offers. Such sights might fill our minds with lists of presents to be bought and dinners to be planned. Regardless of the feelings that these thoughts might generate, what will certainly be true is that Christmas will be upon us sooner than we think, and will find most of us in a frenzy of activity.

In the (hopefully) recollected calm of our churches, the liturgical celebration of Advent will soon resound with John the Baptist’s cry to “prepare a way for the Lord”, Isaiah’s prophecies of a maiden with child, and strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. What is easily overlooked though, is the very different note struck by the liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent.

In all three yearly cycles of readings, the Gospel is very deliberately orientated well beyond the feast of Christmas, at least in its most immediate sense. The beginning of Advent, year on year, presents us with Jesus’ admonition or warning to his disciples to “stay awake” or “watch”, so that we might be ready for His coming in power and glory at the end of time. A rather marked contrast to the child in the manger, surely?

On the other hand, this might seem like a neat way to segue to John the Baptist’s call, given that the previous weeks had closed the liturgical year with increasingly apocalyptic and tempestuous readings, culminating with the feast of Christ the King.

So is this simply the liturgy’s way of transitioning us to yet another lap, like a toy train on its oval track? No. The liturgy is deliberately providing us with the proper context for the expectation with which we are to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming. The feast of Christmas signals the beginning of the end.

Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily

As the letter to the Hebrews reads: “in these last days, God has spoken to us by the Son.” Having spoken to us over the previous millennia in various ways through the prophets, God has spoken the “Word”: the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God and was God (cf. Jn 1:1). When we celebrate the incarnation of God Himself into our world, His “emptying Himself and taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) as St Paul puts it, we celebrate not an isolated event, but one that stretches back into the past, and reaches into the future.

This event points us back to the beginning, to its raison d-être. It takes us back to the very first man, who was fashioned in the form that God was to reveal Himself in. It reminds us that our first parents, made from whatever earthly material God chose to breathe life into and to create in His image and likeness, turned away from Him and rejected that first offer of His love. It reminds us that for the thousands of years that passed between that event and Jesus Christ, God was forming and re-forming covenants with a people in order to prepare the way for His incarnation. It reminds us that He only became man to die on a cross. It reminds us that the culmination of the liturgical year is therefore yet to come at Easter. It reminds us that having paid the price of our redemption, Jesus Christ is like the “man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task” (Mk 13:34).

Having apparently stepped back from the world, it seems God has left man in charge, left him to wreak his own designs on the world. The words of Isaiah might seem to ring as true today: “No one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you. For you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins” (Is 64:7). On the one hand it seems we are quite content that way; we seem to like to believe that we are quite capable of ordering our world ourselves. On the other hand, the evidence points to the contrary. But when things go wrong, instead we say, ‘God cannot possibly exist.’

The Holy Family, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1645

So for those who profess belief and await “the revealing of the Sons of God” (Rm 8:19), Advent seems to be a time of being caught between two rather distant events: the already of Christ who has come, and the not-yet of Christ who is to come. Advent lives this polarity, and in its liturgy effects a transition from the second to the first. It begins with texts which speak of Christ’s second coming, and as Christmas draws closer, it shifts to the first coming at Bethlehem.

But what it invites us towards, in an unspoken way, is the hidden coming of Jesus Christ in our hearts; the manifesting of the Kingdom of Heaven which for now cannot be said to be here or there, but which begins with the seed of the Word being planted in our souls. Advent seeks to prepare our hearts through a rapid shift of focus from the future, glorious, terrifying, earth-shattering universal spectacular of the second coming, to the quiet, still, humble and intensely personal event in the Bethlehem stable. These two polar opposites are part of the same single, drawn-out event that is humanity’s adventure with God.

Watch! Watch that scale of magnitude narrow down from the future and the past, to the now; from the universal to the personal, from everyone to you. Stay awake, because the God of the universe knocks at the door of your heart, and awaits for you to open. Be on your guard, because he has left each with his own task, and he must not find you asleep.

Isaiah's Lips Anointed with Fire, by Benjamin West
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Advent Antiphons: O Emmanuel

23rd December 2020

23rd December - O Emmanuel

“O Immanuel, you are our king and our judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour.
O come and save us, Lord our God.”

The final antiphon condenses the glory and might of the Lord, as announced by the previous antiphons, into the immanence of the human form. Emmanuel is the name given in prophecy by Isaiah to King Ahaz to describe the promised Messiah (Is 7:14). Meaning “God is with us,” it serves as a title that aptly describes the person of Jesus.

The references to “king” and “judge”, as well as the final invocation, “O come and save us”, are also drawn from one of Isaiah’s prophecies (33:22), which has as its theme the deliverance of Israel from its foes into the land of the King. The final “Lord our God” of the antiphon also emerges from a similar theme: it appears to refer to Isaiah 37:20, in which the prophet Ezekiel prays for deliverance from the siege of Jerusalem laid by the Assyrian King, Sennacherib, in 70BC.

So the meat of this antiphon expresses very succinctly a certain physical imagery of salvation, that of Israel and its earthly foes, whilst hinting at the hidden way – and thereby the real significance of salvation – in which God will save us.

This salvation is once again given its universal orientation by the phrase at the centre of the antiphon: “the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour.” Although the first part of this is a reference to the prophecy made by Jacob (who was renamed Israel) to his sons (Gn 49:10) regarding the Messiah who would emerge from Judah, the specific notion of a Saviour of all peoples is one that is more identifiable with the New Testament writings of St John and St Paul.

In this way, the final antiphon rounds off the three antiphons that form the acrostic for the word “ero” – “I will be”. The first four, which give “cras” (“tomorrow”), all referred explicitly to the Old Testament; whereas these latter three rely on the New Testament for their full meaning. As the 23rd December draws to a close and the Church waits expectantly for the birth of the Saviour at the next midnight, the last three antiphons have literally spelt out the immanent arrival of Christ, and drawn together the promises of the Old Testament with their fulfilment.

Listen to the O Emmanuel antiphon here

Stefan Kaminski

Director, The Christian Heritage Centre

How to support The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst

is a registered charity, established to increase access by the Catholic community to the Stonyhurst Collections.

Images from the Collections are kindly reproduced by permission of the Society of Jesus and Stonyhurst College.

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst has built Theodore House to enable visitors, scholars, parishes, schools and retreatants to deepen their Christian faith.

Further details of how to support the project or to book Theodore House are available from 01254 827329.

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Advent Antiphons: O Rex

22nd December 2020

22nd December - O Rex

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

The penultimate antiphon expresses a very Christocentric reading of the Old Testament. Unlike the previous antiphons, none of the Old Testament texts to which it refers are essentially Messianic prophecies.

The English translation loses some of the references however. The Latin antiphon translates more literally as, “O King of the people, and [who is] desired by them”. “King of the people” is drawn from Jeremiah’s speech, in which he contrasts Israel’s true God with the pagan idols ( Jer 10:7). The application of this title to Christ the Son seems to be original to the antiphon’s author.

The people’s desire, as expressed here, has also been subjected to some reinterpretation. The text refers to Haggai’s prophecy (2:7) where, in the Hebrew text, the prophet speaks of that which is desirable or precious flowing in. The English, and other vernacular translations, translate this to refer to “treasure” or similar. But St Jerome, in his Latin translation, instead personifies the desirable or precious object, giving it a Messianic interpretation. And so the antiphon interprets the Promised One, Israel’s own God in human form, as the true desire of humanity.

The universal sense of this desire is reinforced by the “cornerstone which makes all one”. St Paul, in Ephesians 2:20, refers to Christ as the cornerstone on which the Church is built. In turn, he draws this expression from Isaiah 28:16, which speaks of a stone at the foundations of Sion. However, the Latin antiphon then quotes Ephesians 2:14,, which refers to making both one (rather than all). St Paul is here referring to the “pagans and Jews”, who are brought together as one in Christ.

The antiphon concludes by underlining, again, that universality of both pagans and Jews (i.e. of all humanity) by reference to their common Creator. The making of man from clay refers to Genesis 2:7. It should not surprise us that the antiphon accredits this act of creation to the Second Person of the Trinity. St John’s Gospel reminds us that “all things were made through Him”, and several Fathers of the Church (particularly Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus) speak of the role of the Son, and indeed the Holy Spirit, in creation.

Thus, immediately prior to the imminent manifestation of the Christ-Child, this antiphon reminds us of the splendour and power that human form will veil in the Christmas mystery.

Listen to the O Rex antiphon here

Stefan Kaminski

Director, The Christian Heritage Centre

How to support The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst

is a registered charity, established to increase access by the Catholic community to the Stonyhurst Collections.

Images from the Collections are kindly reproduced by permission of the Society of Jesus and Stonyhurst College.

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst has built Theodore House to enable visitors, scholars, parishes, schools and retreatants to deepen their Christian faith.

Further details of how to support the project or to book Theodore House are available from 01254 827329.

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Advent Antiphons: O Oriens

21st December 2020

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.”

The fifth antiphon comes together out of a coincidence of literary necessity, the calendar and its relation to the previous antiphon.

Any literary-sensitive person will note the discomfort of “Oriens” following on from “O”. However, as with “Adonai”, “Oriens” in part serves to complete the acrostic that the antiphons form. Before despairing at such a utilitarian approach however, it has to be observed that the calendar comes to the rescue by providing an objective significance to this choice of words: 21st December is also the winter solstice. From now on, in the northern hemisphere, the Sun’s light indeed begins to increase and to rise earlier.

And this contrast between light and darkness, so aptly captured by St John in the prologue to His Gospel, also describes the relationship of this antiphon to its predecessor. The “Rising Sun” (or “Dayspring”, in some translations), follows immediately from the previous plea for freedom for “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Before returning to the repetition of this last phrase, there are the three, distinct, light-themed invocations to consider, all of which are grounded in the Old Testament.

“Rising Sun” contains a duplicate reference. The Greek word, anatole, was used to signify not only “rising sun” but also “shoot” or “branch”. Anatole was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12, both of which are Messianic prophecies referring to the Shoot or Branch. When St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he chose to translate these texts with the Latin for “rising sun” – “oriens”. This perhaps made all the more sense in view of the fact that St Luke used the same Greek word, anatole, in reporting Zechariah’s prophecy at the birth of his son, John the Baptist: “the loving-kindness of the heart of our God, who visits us like the rising sun from on high.” “Oriens” was the more fitting translation for St Luke’s text, and thereby the antiphon reflects its roots in the prophecies of both the Old Testament Zechariah and the New Testament Zechariah.

The phrase “Splendour of eternal light” points us back to the Book of Wisdom, and indeed to the first of the antiphons. This title is used to describe Wisdom herself, in 7:26. Whilst “eternal light” refers to the omnipotence of God (i.e. the Father), the emanating splendour of Wisdom has been understood as a reference to the Son since the earliest Christian times.

In keeping with the theme of significant days, “sun of justice” is found in Malachi’s prophecy of the Great Day of the Lord, in chapter 4. It will rise “with healing in its wings” for the righteous. Although the phrase is not found again in the Bible, a third century AD text, referring to Christ in relation to the “sun of justice”, helped to cement the tradition of the Lord’s Birth as being around the winter solstice.

The second half of this antiphon again draws in the theme of shadow and darkness, which awaits to be dispelled by the light. “Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” is also a phrase used by the New Testament Zechariah at the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:79). In his turn, Zechariah is undoubtedly borrowing from one of Isaiah’s great prophecies (Is 9:2), in which “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…”

The antiphon thus unites our prayers to those of our ancestors in asking the Lord to fulfil this prophecy and to save us from the shadow of darkness.

Listen to the O Oriens antiphon here

Stefan Kaminski

Director, The Christian Heritage Centre

How to support The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst

is a registered charity, established to increase access by the Catholic community to the Stonyhurst Collections.

Images from the Collections are kindly reproduced by permission of the Society of Jesus and Stonyhurst College.

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst has built Theodore House to enable visitors, scholars, parishes, schools and retreatants to deepen their Christian faith.

Further details of how to support the project or to book Theodore House are available from 01254 827329.

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Advent Antiphons: O Clavis David

20th December 2020

20th December - O Clavis David

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

The prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 22, from which the first half of this antiphon is drawn, invests Eliakim as master of the royal household. This imagery is taken up in Revelation 3:7, in which Eliakim is replaced by Christ, the true Master. An echo of the imagery of the binding power of the key can perhaps be heard in Christ’s words to Peter in Matthew 16, in which Peter is given that power to bind and to loose by the Lord.

Into this phrase is inserted a reference to Genesis 49:10, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah”. This is a further allusion to the promise of a kingly Messiah, as made to Jacob: he who would become known as Israel, and the father of a great nation.

The second half once again refers us to the Song of the Suffering Servant. Isaiah 42:7 speaks of the Lord who has come “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” To this is added “the shadow of death”, a phrase that is repeated twice in Psalm 106, which gives thanks to the Lord for His saving help.

Following on from the previous antiphon, “O Key of David” makes clear the saving action of the Messiah, His absolute power over life and death and His mission of Redemption.

Listen to the O Clavis David Iesse antiphon here

Stefan Kaminski

Director, The Christian Heritage Centre

How to support The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst

is a registered charity, established to increase access by the Catholic community to the Stonyhurst Collections.

Images from the Collections are kindly reproduced by permission of the Society of Jesus and Stonyhurst College.

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst has built Theodore House to enable visitors, scholars, parishes, schools and retreatants to deepen their Christian faith.

Further details of how to support the project or to book Theodore House are available from 01254 827329.