The “O” Antiphons Advent Liturgy, 2023

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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2023, 7 P.M., in the cathedral nave and livestreamed

The annual "O" Antiphons Liturgy is considered by many to be a highlight of the liturgical year at Saint Mark's. The particular form of this liturgy that we use was invented here, first presented in 1986, and is today used by churches around the world. It is similar to a "Lessons & Carols" service, but rather than presenting a linear narrative from scripture, it is structured around seven medieval antiphons, each beginning with the word "O ," which also form the basis of the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

The liturgy is a poetic exploration of resonant images of Christ found in the antiphons—star, key, root, cornerstone—while drawing the connections between the first advent of Jesus, when he came into our world 2,000 years ago, with both the long-expected coming of the Christ at the end of time, as well as the coming of Christ into the human heart. This beloved cathedral tradition provides a moving and evocative entrance into the Advent season of prayerful expectation.

For the 2023 "O" Antiphons liturgy, the Compline Choir, Senior Choristers of the Choir School, and Cathedral Choir will adorn the opening procession by singing Peter Hallock's dramatic setting of the 5th-century hymn From lands that see the sun arise (A solis ortus cardine). The "O" Antiphons themselves will be sung in a graceful setting by the 20th-century Canadian composer Healey Willan. The congregation and choirs together will sing a hymn published in 2006 by Mary Louise Bringle, Now the heavens start to whisper, and a new tune by Jack Burnam for the classic Advent hymn The King shall come when morning dawns, among other well-known hymns of the season.

Incense is used.

About the "O" Antiphons Service

Advent Processions have been offered at Saint Mark’s Cathedral for many years, though known by several names: Advent Vespers, Advent Lessons and Carols, etc. In 1986, a liturgy using the Great “O” Antiphons as a framework was developed and presented here for the first time. Today, the form of this liturgy created here is used in churches around the world. In normal times, it is one of the few opportunities each year to hear the Compline Choir, the Cathedral Choir, and the Choir School collaborate in a single service  Through the decades, former music directors Peter Hallock and Mel Bulter have written a number of works especially for this service, these choirs, and the space of the cathedral nave—these include several settings of the O Antiphons themselves, the processional anthem "Let My Prayer Come Up as the Incense," and the arrangement used for the culminating rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," among others.

Check out service leaflets from the O Antiphons service of recent years: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017

Videos of this service from recent years maybe be seen here:

The "O" Antiphons Advent Liturgy, 2017

The "O" Antiphons Advent Liturgy, 2021

The "O" Antiphons Advent Liturgy, 2020

The "O" Antiphons Advent Liturgy, 2022


About the "O" Antiphons

The seven “Great ‘O’ Antiphons” which provide the framework for this liturgy were originally sung as a part of the daily evening prayers of the Western church before and after the Magnificat, in the Octave before Christmas—December 17 to 23—with one antiphon being appointed for each evening. Each of the seven antiphons addresses the Messiah by one of his titles, using images drawn from the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, and concludes with a petition beginning “Come!” and relating to the title.

The antiphons date back at least to the reign of Charlemagne (771–814), and they may be significantly older. At least two—and up to five—additional antiphons were later added to the original seven. However, it is clear that these seven were designed as a group, since their initial letters (ignoring the “O”) spell out, in reverse, the acrostic ERO CRAS, that is, “I shall be [with you] tomorrow.”

By the later Middle Ages, the antiphons were sometimes put together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the addition of a refrain. The earliest known metrical and rhymed paraphrase of the antiphons appeared (in Latin) in the early 18th century, but it was not until 1851—over one thousand years after the creation of the antiphons themselves—that an English translation of that text was paired with an unrelated 15th-century tune, creating the hymn we know today as O come, O come, Emmanuel.

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