Tomorrow we begin Great Advent, the final week of Advent. The centerpiece of Great Advent is the “O Antiphons”, special Magnificat antiphons sung only at this time.
The history of the “Great” or “O Antiphons” stretch back to as early as the 6th century. By the 8th century they are known in Rome, and are being sung in other regions as well. Their use in the closing week of Advent is both solemn and celebratory. In cathedrals and monasteries their intonation was assigned to the bishop, dean and clergy or to the abbot, prior and other monastic officers—after which some kind of repast was hosted by the intoning official. The Community has carried on this annual festive tradition. The intonation of the antiphons can be assigned to any of the members, who understand that a part of the responsibility includes hosting a small party afterwards which could include cookies, cakes, sweets or finger foods and possibly a shot of sherry, spiked cider or egg nog!
In centuries past, to lend further solemnity to the occasion, the largest bell in the tower was tolled as the antiphon and Magnificat were sung. For miles around, there would be no question as to what was taking place during Vespers of “Great Advent.”