In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah, calling to him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key O Light! come to us!
The evening prayer, also know as Vespers, always includes the great prayer of Mary known as the Magnificat. Each day, the Magnificat is preceded by a short verse or “antiphon” that links the prayer to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the antiphons before the Magnificat are very special. Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.
These moving “O Antiphons” were composed when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah, which looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of scriptural images. The great “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.
Each of the O Antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Malcolm writes,
“The third Advent antiphon, O Radix, calls on Christ as the root, an image I find particularly compelling and helpful. The collect is referring to the image of he ‘tree of Jesse the family tree which leads to David, and ultimately to Christ as the ‘son of David, but for me the title radix, goes deeper, as a good root should. It goes deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation. God in Christ, is I believe, the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers, a sound tree cannot bear bad fruit said Christ, who also said, I am the vine, you are the branches.”
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.
This sonnet based on the third O Antiphon is composed by Malcolm Guite.