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Keep your O

From very early on, the Christian Church created a rich liturgy of preparation for Christmas. This season of Advent was a time for reflection, self-examination, intentionality--something that usually gets trampled somewhere between Black Friday, holiday menu planning, and the mad dash to send out the Christmas cards.

One of the most ancient and lovely rituals of Advent is the singing of the great O Antiphons each night during Vespers in the week before Christmas. Boethius mentions these chants in the first years of the 6th Century, and by the 8th Century, manuscripts contain frequent examples of monks cheerfully reminding each other to "Keep your O."

The original chants, sung on December 17 through 23, all begin with "O" (hence the name), each with a different name for God, and each beseeching God to come ("veni"):

Dec 17 O Sapientia O WISDOM come to teach us

Dec 18 O Adonai O LORD come to redeem us

Dec 19 O Radix Jesse O ROOT OF JESSE come to liberate us

Dec 20 O Clavis David O KEY OF DAVID come to lead us out of darkness

Dec 21 O Oriens O MORNING STAR come to enlighten us

Dec 22 O Rex Gentium O KING OF NATIONS come to save the human race

Dec 23 O Emmanuel O GOD WITH US come to deliver us

These chants were paraphrased into Latin verse ("Veni, Veni, Emmanuel...") perhaps as early as the 12th Century, but were not published until 1710. Then Anglican priest and scholar John Mason Neale translated that Latin verse into English in 1851 ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"), and it was paired with the pre-existing (15th Century or earlier) French melody that we know today.

This year's Christmas at Assisi will begin with all three iterations of this ancient tradition--first we'll intone two of the O Antiphon chants, then sing two Latin paraphrased verses, then we'll invite the audience to sing along on three verses of today's O Come, O Come, Emmanuel hymn. As they have done for 1500 years, the O Antiphons will gracefully usher us into the Christmas celebration!

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