Season after Pentecost, 2023
I am beginning to hear the O Antiphons differently this year.
We can, of course, go into their meaning, their scriptural references, the associations with specific dates, the monastic tradition of who they were sung by, and that nifty reverse acrostic. That's usually where my mind goes! But this year I'm just hearing the music.
The O Antiphons are all sung to a relatively simple chant that easily adapts to each. Hearing this same chant scattered throughout a carol service has a unifying effect.
St. John's, Cambridge, whose famous Advent service is in four sections, groups the antiphons into pairs of two. Other services distribute them evenly throughout the service. St. Mark's, Seattle, uses them as the basis for the form of the service itself. However they are used, many Advent Carol Services tend to incorporate the O Antiphons.
I used to think their use at St. John's Advent service was simply too much. The service has so much rich choral music that I found it difficult to also take in the simplicity of the O Antiphons.
But perhaps that's not the point. Iin listening to many Advent Carol Services this year, where they are so often included, it seems to me that they are serving a different function.
Ironically, musicians often get so obsessed with specific textual content and meaning, sometimes at the expense of the music itself. I'm grateful for conversations with clergy where so often I think we are able to reinforce each other's ministries from both sides of the table: a musician's perspective on the rhetoric of preaching and the drama of liturgy; a clergyperson's perspective on sound itself.
And with these antiphons, especially in a large resonant space, perhaps its the sound itself that matters more. The simplicity of the unadorned chant being sung out at regular intervals punctuates the liturgy with its unmistakable aroma of Advent longing. The gentle rise in the chant mirrors the incense of our prayer.
Maybe this year, I've finally heard them enough that I no longer need to attend to every word, every image. Don't get me wrong; I still appreciate those gifts of the tradition. But now I can hear the O Antiphons in a more relaxed way and let them do their potent work.
As Marva Dawn so aptly said about liturgy, it's a case of "when you know the steps you can dance."
This is the great gift of a repeated tradition like this. It has taken me many years, but I feel now as if I am greeting these antiphons as an old friend. And, quite frankly, I'm a bit concerned by their absence from the service I lead annually.
I'm not making any last-minute changes this year, but I will be pondering this with an ear to Advent 2023. In a desire to make the service less cluttered, perhaps I've taken away some of what can anchor a community to the Advent service.
Like the familiar wreath that appears on Advent Sunday, these O Antiphons, heard again and again throughout a service, again and again from year to year, again and again throughout a lifetime—this too can signal Advent.
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