Oh, Those "O Antiphons": There's More Than One Way to Structure a Lessons and Carols Service
It’s been five years since we tried using those O Antiphons (see box) at LOFT. I’m thinking of introducing them again after one of the new worship apprentices mentioned reading about them in Webber’s Complete Library of Christian Worship. But if memory serves, the last time we tried to use them, the service didn’t go so well.
To do: Look at notes from last Antiphon service.
Sure enough, our last Antiphon attempt was underwhelming. Two related things went wrong. First, the students responded negatively to abandoning the covenantal narrative structure (Approach, Word, Response) our worship usually takes, and the smooth way the songs flow to make that structure plain but unobtrusive. Instead, we used a “prayer and readings” arrangement that divided our time cleanly into seven sections, each with a relevant Scripture reading, the Antiphon itself, a brief meditation, and a song. That might work in some contexts, but didn’t work so well for us. I suppose it’s a good sign when the students not only recognize the importance of these liturgical structures, but demand them.
We also made the mistake of limiting our sung prayer to two musical settings of the Antiphons: the traditional plainsong “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the less well-known but beautifully plaintive “My Soul in Stillness Waits” (SNC 95). The problem was that in the service itself we didn’t make much room for actual stillness. One student commented that since we only have two LOFT weeks during Advent, and since the last one always leans heavily toward Christmas celebration, it seemed like we were trying to cram all our Advent longing into one service.
So would it be wise to try again? Can we overlay an Approach/Word/Response structure atop the readings/prayers structure? Even if the Word section isn’t a full-out sermon? And can we do so in a way that doesn’t pack the service with unrelieved, unanswered longing? That’s the challenge for the planning team.
Dean liked the idea of having another go at the Antiphons, but remembered (and appreciated) the service’s unity as expressed in the common sung elements. He also remembered that explaining the clever Latin acrostic was distracting within the service itself. And he suggested a wonderful solution: graphics. The acrostic needs no verbose explanation, just a graphic representation of the word puzzle, revealed at the conclusion of the service. And the use of background art in the PowerPoint slides behind the lyrics or other words could provide both continuity throughout the service and mark the shifts from one Antiphon to the next.
It went well. The LOFT team wasn’t sure if everyone understood the antiphon structure of the service, but it flowed so beautifully according to our usual pattern that it didn’t matter. We often put for effort in the details that others won’t notice, but God knows.
In a Word
The “O Antiphons” are a series of seven Advent prayers developed by Benedictine monks in the Middle Ages. Based on Isaiah’s prophecies about Jesus, each one begins with the beseeching “O” and then addresses Christ using a particular title (Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King, Emmanuel). We often pray these prayers ourselves when we sing the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
The order of the prayers is significant. Starting with the last title in reverse order, the first letter of each (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapienta) forms an acrostic: the Latin words Ero cras, which speak Jesus’ response and promise to us. “Tomorrow, I will come.”
Advent Service Based on the “O Antiphons”
[As people prepare to worship, a brief word of introduction on a PowerPoint slide tells the congregation a little bit about the Antiphons and their use in this service.]
Song: “O Come, O Come Immanuel” PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL 123, TH 194, TWC 133
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You create the universe and hold all things together with strength and sweetness. O come to teach us the way of truth.
[Band transitions during the reading—“O Come . . .” to “God of Wonders.”]
Song: “God of Wonders’’ (More Songs for Praise & Worship 2, 80)
Scripture: Psalm 19:1-4a, 7-9, 14 (read by student)
O Adonai and leader of Israel, you appeared to Moses in a burning bush and you gave him the law on Mount Sinai. O come and stretch out your mighty hand to redeem us.
[Band transitions during the reading to “We Delight.”]
Song: “We Delight’’ (WOW Hits 2002 Songbook)
Scripture: Exodus 19:18-19 (read by student)
Reflection (2 minutes): on using “Adonai” for God out of fear; law and holiness; a call to confession
Song: “Kyrie” SNC 52, 53, or 54
Prayer: spoken on behalf of the congregation
Reflection (2 minutes): on Jesus Christ as “Adonai,” the Lord who fulfills the requirements of the law and teaches us the law of love
Song: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” PsH 486, PH 356, RL 449, TH 457, TWC 45
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1, 10 (read by student)
O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings fall silent before you; nations bow down and worship you. O come to deliver us and do not delay.
Reflection (2 minutes): on the sprouting stump as an “ensign of the people”; not strong or powerful in traditional sense, but the green shoot filled with the power of life where death seemed to have won
Song: “Salvation” (I Could Sing of Your Love Forever Songbook 2 or The Praise & Worship Fakebook, p. 317)
[Lights are dimmed somewhat during the next section. Band transitions from “Salvation” to “Venga Tu Reino” and plays the latter quietly underneath . . .]
O Key of David and scepter of Israel, what you open no one else can close again; what you close no one can open. O come to lead the captives from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Song: “Venga Tu Reino”/“Jesus Christ, Hope of the World” (Mil Voces 387, the Spanish language hymnal of the United Methodist Church)
O Radiant Dawn, you are the splendor of eternal light and the sun of justice. O come and shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2; Hebrews 1:3 (read by student)
Song: “My Soul in Stillness Waits” SNC 95 (sung as solo with minimal accompaniment)
Meditation: on darkness and light and the dawn (but not yet the full day) Christ brings
Song: “My Soul in Stillness Waits” (refrain only)
O King whom all the peoples desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one. O come and deliver the creature you fashioned from the dust of the earth.
Scripture: Ephesians 2:19-22 (read by student)
Prayers of the People (concludes with the hope and joy that comes from the reign of God)
Song: “Lord Most High” SNC 47
O Emmanuel, you are our king and judge, the one whom the peoples await and their Savior. O come and save us, Lord, our God.
Scripture: Isaiah 7:14 (read by student)
St. Patrick’s Prayer (unpublished song)
[Band transitions into . . .]
Song: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (st. 1) PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL 123, TH 194, TWC 133
Song: “My Friends, May You Grow in Grace” SNC 288