2015-12-13 Notes from the Bench

Advent Lessons and Carols: “The Great O Antiphons of Advent” by Healey Willan

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


This Sunday evening, the All Saints’ community will celebrate our annual Advent Lessons and Carols Festival. This is a wonderful time for us as a faith community to prepare for the celebration of Christmas by setting aside this time, away from the frenzy of activity surrounding the secular celebration of Christmas, to reflect on the Word of God and the messages of the prophets who spoke of the coming of our Savior. Interspersed among the selected readings, the All Saints’ Chamber Choir will sing “The Great O Antiphons of Advent” by Healey Willan.



The custom of a Christmas-time Lessons and Carols Service originated in Truro, England and became formalized in 1880. The first Lessons and Carols services took place on Christmas Eve of that year and has been in continuous use since. The most famous Lessons and Carols Festival is held at King’s College, Cambridge, which is now broadcast around the world. The traditional format of the lessons traces the Biblical story of the fall of humanity into sin, the prophetic promise of a Messiah, and the story of the birth of Jesus. Over the course of the service, there is a transition from Advent into Christmas. There are interesting parallels with the Christmas-tide Lessons and Carols Festival and the Great Vigil of Easter, which is a transition into Easter. Each utilizes a greater number of Biblical readings that are followed by musical responses, and precede two of the great Christian celebrations.

The traditionally Anglican Festivals of Lessons and Carols has been modified over the years and various Christian denominations have adapted this service to incorporate it as part of their Advent or Christmas observances. Since this is the third week of Advent, we are celebrating the Advent form of the service to retain the integrity of the season. The focus of tonight’s readings is on the prophesies of the coming Messiah.

The “O” Antiphons are the antiphons for the Magnificat used at Vespers beginning on December 17 until Christmas Eve. Each antiphon is a title for the Messiah and refer to the prophecy of Isaiah of the Messiah’s coming: Sapientia (Wisdom), Adonai (God), Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), Clavis David (Key of David), Oriens (Morning Star), Rex Gentium (King of Nations), and Emmanuel (God with us). Fr. William Saunders presents the theory, although it may simply be a coincidence, that the medieval Benedictine monks arranged the antiphons in a manner so that if you take first letter of each one (in reverse order), the Latin words ERO CRAS are formed, which means “tomorrow, I will come,” or “tomorrow I will be.”

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