Every Sunday of Advent, the Church, who orders her worship under the divine guidance of the Holy Ghost, provides us with a set of antiphons to accompany the four Psalms and the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Magnificat. What is an antiphon? It is a composition of passages and images from Sacred Scripture, artfully woven together, and given a voice by means of the chant
The antiphons of the Divine Office are, in every season and on every feast, sacraments — let us say “sacramentals” — by which our minds are enlightened, our hearts are inflamed with divine love, and our wills are healed, strengthened, and reordered to choose lasting joy over every selfish inclination and passing trifle. At the same time, the antiphons of the Divine Office are, even before they enlighten, and inflame, and heal us, pure praise of God. We sing the antiphons not for what we will learn from them or get out of them, but because they express the praise due to God alone. It is, in some way, in forgetting ourselves, in going out of ourselves, in rising above ourselves to praise God, that, almost imperceptibly, what is dark in us grows bright, what is cold in us grows warm, and what is twisted in us is made straight. Let us look then at the five antiphons given us this evening.
Antiphon 1: The Lord will come, and will not tarry; He both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make Himself manifest to all people. Alleluia.
This is a word of reassurance drawn from the prophet Habacuc and from Saint Paul. Just when we begin to sink into self-pity and begin to lose our footing in the edge of despondency, we are given this promise of hope. Things hidden from us now under a veil of darkness will be brought to light. The Lord will show us His Face. He will cause us to hear His voice. And in that day, we will pass from believing and hoping to seeing and possessing.
Antiphon 2: Rejoice greatly, O Jerusalem, for thy Saviour cometh unto thee. Alleluia.
Who is Jerusalem? Jerusalem is, first of all, the city of God’s Chosen People, the place of His Temple, the tenting place of His glory. But now, in the light of Christ, Jerusalem is the Virgin Mary; Jerusalem is the Church Catholic; Jerusalem is every faithful soul. You are, each of you, Jerusalem, and so am I. And to each of us, as to Our Lady and to the Church, the prophet Joel says: Rejoice greatly, for thy Saviour cometh unto thee. Alleluia.
Antiphon 3: I will place salvation in Sion, and My glory in Jerusalem. Alleluia.
This is a promise of God, made by the mouth of the prophet Isaias, and fulfilled in Christ and in the Church for our sakes. “I will place salvation in Sion.” The Church of Christ, endowed with the seven sacraments, is the place of our salvation, that is the place of our restoration to health of soul and body. The Church is the place wherein the Divine Physician waits for all who are broken, wounded, confused, and distressed. And the Church of Christ is the place where, even now, as in a mirror darkly, we catch a glimpse of the glory of God that shines on the Face of His Christ. There is no tabernacle on earth that, sheltering the Sacred Host, is not the place where Glory dwells, that is where we, drawn on by faith, can discover a glimpse of what awaits us in heaven.
Antiphon 4: We should live justly and piously, looking for that blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.
It is Saint Paul writing to Titus who addresses us in the fourth antiphon: “We should live justly and piously, looking for that blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.” To live justly is to live in such a way that one’s mind, heart, and will are adjusted to the Will of God. The man who lives justly adjusts himself to the prayer of Jesus to the Father: “Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done” ( Luke 22:42). To live piously is to live under the influence of the gift of piety, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. The gift of piety disposes one to live with childlike reliance on the Father’s goodness and with confidence in the Father’s love. It disposes one to fear offending God and to seek always the things that please Him. Why did the Word become flesh? In order to communicate to us the grace of divine sonship, in order to make us by grace what He is by nature. It is this that fills us, not with dread of things to come, but with an irrepressible and joyful hope.
Finally, there is the fifth antiphon, that of the Magnificat. It is addressed not to us, but to Mary, full of grace; to Mary, the Cause of Our Joy; to Mary, blessed among women.
Antiphon at the Magnificat: Blessed art thou, O Mary, who hast believed the Lord, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told thee from the Lord. Alleluia.
This is a song in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s faith, for it is by her faith that we have faith. It is because she hoped that we can hope. It is because Our Lady held fast to the word announced to her by the Angel, that we can stake our lives on every word of God.
And so, you see, dear friends, the treasure that we are given in the antiphons of the Divine Office. Let not such a treasure slip away into oblivion. Store up in your hearts the words and the melodies of this Advent Vesper Office, and you will go away mysteriously, but really, illumined, warmed, and healed.