Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
First, I mean no disrespect—but if you are a theologian or a historian or a liturgist, please pop in here to explain something for me.
I’ve been reading about the O Antiphons, those profound anticipatory verses from Isaiah which, in the Catholic tradition, are read at Vespers from Dec. 17 through Dec. 23, leading up to the Christmas season. Lovely prayers, most certainly! But over and over in the literature, as an after-note, I read that the first letters of the seven Antiphons, when read in reverse, convey a secret message.
I first read about this great secret on Wikipedia, but it pops up on other, more scholarly sites as well. Apparently, the finding originated with Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Professor Greenberg noted that if one starts with the last title and, reading them in reverse, takes the first letter of each, one will see the Latin words “ero cras,” meaning “Tomorrow, I will come.” Greenberg believes that as we prepare for Christ’s coming in Advent, and as we pray the seven Messianic titles of the O Antiphons, the Lord Jesus now speaks to us.
Huh? So what you’re saying, Dr. Greenberg, is that the Holy Spirit inspired the prophet to write in Hebrew, or whatever language was used for that part of the Bible, using words which – when translated into Latin, then read backward – would spell a secret message? That this would happen years later, after the Catholic Church had established its locus in Rome and when the words of Scripture were published in the vernacular of the time, Latin?
I dunno. This isn’t a doctrine which has been declared infallible, right? Because myself, I’m just not buying it.
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Excuse me if I am wary of such pronouncements. See, I remember the frenzy when, on a Saturday afternoon in 1969, Russ Gibb, DJ on Detroit’s WKNR (Keener) radio, got a call from an Eastern Michigan University student who claimed that the Beatles song “Revolution 9,” when played backward, says “Turn me on, dead man.” And at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” according to the same student, a muffled voice says “I buried Paul.”
So started the rumor, buttressed by another and yet another cryptic message, that Paul McCartney had died in a 1966 motorcycle accident. The pièce de résistance: On the cover of “Abbey Road,” the four Beatles are crossing the street, and Paul is walking barefoot. “See!” cry the conspiracy theorists. “Paul is barefoot, and people in coffins are barefoot! People aren’t buried with their shoes on!” (I still don’t know whether or not that’s true, so maybe funeral directors can also pop in to opine about this difficult issue.)
And then there’s the Bible Code! That book was flying off store shelves in 1997. People wanted to see the secret messages revealed in the Bible. Using the Equidistant Letter Sequence method, a group of scholars had three years earlier claimed to find cryptic messages on the pages of scripture; and in 1997, journalist Michael Drosnin released their findings in a bestselling book. Problems abound within the theory itself; but scientific method aside, the “secret code” again relies on a specific printing of a specific version of the Bible (the King James), or else the letters won’t fall into the correct order. I think by this time, everyone except a few Oprah! fans have recognized the flaws in the theory and have moved on.
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So back to the O Antiphons. They are beautiful prayers, rich with expectancy, with anticipation of the coming Christ, and they are well worth our attention in these days leading up to our celebration of his birth. The Antiphons refer to Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah, pointing to the coming King.
But the “secret message”? You can decide for yourself. In order of their appearance in the prayers for each day, the O Antiphons are as follows:
- O SAPIENTIA: “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.”
- O ADONAI: “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.”
- O RADIX 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.”
- O CLAVIS 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.”
- O ORIENS: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
- O REX GENTIUM: “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 form the dust.”
- O EMMANUEL: “O Emmanuel*, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”
*Remember that Emmanuel means “God with us.” And so he is.
Enjoy this last week of Advent.