O, Those Antiphons! Hoping in the Past, Present and Future

Maria Perla's sari-sari store
Maria Perla's sari-sari store (photo: Photo by Author)

We’ve begun the “O” Antiphons.

Every year from December 17-23, the Catholic Church sings what’s known as the “O” Antiphons, the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer. They’re called such because each antiphon begins with “O.” You’ll notice them as the Alleluia verse before the Gospel at Mass. The tradition itself dates back to the eighth century.

The “O” Antiphons conjure up ancient biblical scenes that point the way along our Lord’s lineage and majesty.

Wisdom of our God Most High; Leader of the House of Israel; Root of Jesse’s stem; Key of David; Radiant Dawn; King of all nations and keystone of the Church. And, finally, Emmanuel, our King and Giver of the Law.

They herald the coming of Christ and are a stark reminder that we’ve entered the Second Part of Advent. They express hope in the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and longing for the Messiah.

They also express our hope in the present and the future. For all our hope – past, present, and future – lies in Emmanuel, our Lord and King.

The “O” Antiphons have me thinking about Maria Perla.

Maria Perla Sagdullas is just one of many Super Typhoon Haiyan survivors I interviewed while traveling in the Philippines with Catholic Relief Services this past October. In November 2013, Haiyan ravaged the Philippine island of Leyte, leaving 6,300 people dead and more than four million displaced. While there, I listened to story after story of fear, loss, grief, and heroism. But mostly, I listened to stories of faith.

It’s Maria Perla’s faith that I’ll be thinking of this Advent as I repeat the “O” Antiphons.  

She watched her brother and niece literally wash away in a 20-foot wall of water caused by the typhoon’s deadly storm surge. She tried to reach them, but couldn’t. She already was fighting to save herself and her six-year old grandson.

When the surge subsided, they found themselves with nothing but the clothes on their backs, surrounded by mud and dead bodies. After two days, they headed out and were able to make it to a hotel some miles away where Maria Perla’s other brother and cousin were taking refuge. On the way, they located her husband.  Maria Perla’s remaining siblings came from the neighboring island of Samar and rescued them.

Two weeks later, the Sagdullas Family returned to the place their house once stood. There was nothing left, and so they began the arduous task of rebuilding their lives from scratch. They’ve made progress, thanks to a storm-resistant shelter in a new, safer location and start-up funds to re-found Maria Perla’s sari-sari, or variety store, provided by CRS.

In spite of it all, Maria Perla’s faith was unshaken. She had not lost hope. Nor, I bet, will she ever.

The new shelter was clean and comfortable but very small. Yet, a significant portion of it was devoted to a home altar. Home altars are customary in Philippine homes. Enthroned on Maria Perla’s was a statue of Santo Niño, or the Holy Child. There were vases of flowers, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other sacramentals.

And there were Christmas decorations.

I asked Maria Perla about them, thinking perhaps that they were memorabilia somehow scavenged from the ruins of their home.

She answered me with a look of absolute resolve mixed with pride.

“They’re for Christmas,” she said.

Even though Yuletide was still months away, Maria Perla had decorated her house as a symbol of the faith and hope she bore in her heart.   

“What will Christmas be like this year for your family?” I asked.

She lit up and smiled.

“I just want that we’re all together,” she said. “I want to be together as a family. I want us to eat together, to sit down and have a meal together, as family. Of course we won’t forget November 8, 2013, but we will be together.”

Maria Perla decorated in the joyful anticipation that the remnant of her family that had survived Super Typhoon Haiyan would celebrate the birth of Santo Niño around the family table, sharing a meal, grateful to be together.

I was stunned. It’s one thing to endure a horrific disaster and be grateful for having survived. It’s another thing to turn the experience into a deep and peaceful longing, not for what has been left behind, but for what is and what lies ahead.

Could you do the same? I’m not sure I could.

To me, Maria Perla is a lived example of the essence of the “O” Antiphons – hope in the past, present, and future and confidence in the promise of the Radiant Dawn.

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

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