We have now reached the final Sunday of Advent and Christmas will be upon us shortly. The Catholic Church loves celebrations and has designated several days before and after Christmas for special periods of preparation and celebration.
We’ll begin with the particular preparation in which we are invited to participate this week. The eight days preceding Christmas are collectively called the octave before Christmas. For the first seven of these eight days, there are special verses, called the O Antiphons, which are meditated upon before praying the Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. These O Antiphons highlight the titles for Jesus according to the prophet Isaiah, who foretold the Lord’s coming. These titles and the verses of the O Antiphons are as follows:
O Sapientia (O Wisdom): “O Wisdom, O holy word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” (cf. Is 11:2-3, Is 28:29, Lk 2:52, Lk 4:18-10)
O Adonai (O Lord): “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” (cf. Is 11:4-5, Is 33:22)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse): “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” (cf. Is 11:1, Is 11:10, Mi 5:1, Mt 2:6, Mt 1:1-16, Rv 22:16)
O Clavis David (O Key of David): O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.” (cf. Is 22:22, Is 9:6, Mt 16:19, Rv 91:18)
O Oriens (O Rising Sun): “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” (cf. Is 9:1, Lk 2:29-32, Rv 22:16)
O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations): “O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.” (cf. Is 9:5, Is 2:4)
O Emmanuel (O God is with us): “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” (cf Is 7:14, Mt 1:23)
If you pray each of these O Antiphons in the days leading up to Christmas, you are praying in union with priests and religious, as well as with the Church as a whole. This is a beautiful illustration of the unity of the Church, the Body of Christ, in her anticipation for the coming of our Lord, who is the Head. Also, if you enjoy word scrambles, it is interesting to note that if you take the first letter of each of the titles in reverse order, it spells out ero cras, which means “Tomorrow, I will come.” In addition to the O Antiphons, another good exercise in these final days of Advent is to meditate on each of the verses from the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, which calls upon God using each of these titles.
Once Christmas day arrives, we begin the Octave of Christmas to extend and prolong the feast. Christmas day begins the octave and each of the following seven days are to be treated as a “little Christmas.” The Gloria is to be said or sung every day during the Octave. Also within the Christmas Octave are some important feast days: St. Stephen, St. John the Apostle, the Holy Innocents, and the Holy Family, with the octave concluding on the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God on January 1st. It is appropriate that the Octave ends on this feast as it solidifies the doctrine of the hypostatic union – the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures in one person – which happened because of Mary’s cooperation in the Incarnation of Jesus. After Christmas day, find ways to celebrate seven more days of “little Christmases.”
Finally, one other way to keep the Christmas season going is by acknowledging the twelve days of Christmas, and no, it is not just a song. The feast of the Epiphany (when the baby Jesus is visited by the Magi) is a moveable feast in the Church, allowing it to be celebrated on a Sunday rather than making it yet another Holy Day of Obligation. However, the official date of Epiphany is January 6th, following the completion of the twelve days of Christmas. The song itself, is also worthy of reflection throughout this season of celebration. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) it was illegal to practice the Roman Catholic Faith in England. This lasted until 1829 when King George IV reinstated religious freedom. During these almost 300 years, a person could be tortured or executed for practicing the Faith. Because of this, it was difficult to teach the Faith openly. The Twelve Days of Christmas was written sometime in the mid-1700s as a secret catechetical tool to teach children the Faith using secular images. The “true love” refers to God Himself and each of the twelve gifts He gives represents a theological reality. They are as follows:
² Partridge in a pear tree: The partridge represents Jesus, and the pear tree is the cross
² Two turtledoves: The Old and New Testaments
² Three French hens: The gifts of the Magi (gold, frankincense, and myrrh)
² Four calling birds: Four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) as well as the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
² Five golden rings: The rings signify God’s eternal and unconditional love for us. The number 5 signifies the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, which are the Jewish books of the law.
² Six geese a-laying: The six days of creation when God created everything out of nothing
² Seven swans a-swimming: Seven is the Jewish number of perfection and a reminder to keep holy the Sabbath. It also represents the seven sacraments, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual works of mercy.
² Eight maids a-milking: The eight beatitudes given in the Sermon on the Mount
² Nine ladies dancing: The nine choirs of angels
² Ten lords a-leaping: The Ten Commandments
² Eleven pipers piping: The eleven apostles that remained faithful to Jesus after Judas’ betrayal
² Twelve drummers drumming: The twelve minor prophets, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve precepts of the Apostles’ Creed, and the twelve Apostles after Judas was replaced by St. Matthias
May you have a blessed final week of Advent and a Merry Christmas next weekend!