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The O Antiphons

By December 17, 2021No Comments
Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Around this point in Advent, the conversations at my house begin to sound a lot like those in our minivan during a road trip: “Are we there yet?!”

We are all excited for Christmas. Not ready—not anywhere close, actually—but definitely excited. And in the midst of everything going on during these last days of Advent—shopping, baking, cleaning, wrapping, Rorate Caeli Mass, tours of neighborhood Christmas lights, etc.—I know that I need to make a particular effort to slow down and spend some extra time in silence and prayer, preparing not only my home but my heart for the coming of Christ.

In this final week leading up to Christmas Eve the Church offers us a profoundly beautiful series of prayers to help us make our final preparations: the O Antiphons. These ancient prayers express our earnest desire for the coming of the Lord using seven Messianic titles from the Old Testament. The O Antiphons have been used in the Church’s liturgy since the fourth century, and they are still used as the verses of the Alleluia at Mass as well as the antiphons sung before and after the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) during Evening Prayer or Vespers each day from December 17th to the 23rd. You may also recognize them as the verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (and if you haven’t yet sung all seven verses this Advent, now is your chance!).

These prayers (and the many scripture passages on which they are based) can help us focus our minds and hearts on the coming of Christ. The titles move through salvation history from creation to the birth of Christ, intensifying our longing and hope.

December 17 – O Sapientia – Wisdom

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.

Jesus Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). With this simple statement, St. Paul sums up the fulfillment of the whole of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The wisdom of God, so evident in creation (Proverbs 8:22-31) and in God’s providential care for his covenant people throughout salvation history (see Wisdom of Solomon chapters 10-19), is fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, God incarnate: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, the first-born before all creatures… Then the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and the one who created me assigned a place for my tent. And he said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance, and among my chosen put down your roots.’” (Sirach 24:3, 8).

December 18 – O Adonai – Lord

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.

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). The second antiphon moves us from Creation to God’s great act of redemption in rescuing his chosen people from slavery in Egypt. He not only saved them from slavery and death but saved them for covenant relationship with him as his “own possession among all peoples… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). So also with us (1 Peter 2:9)!

December 19 – O Radix Jesse – Root of 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.

In 2 Samuel 7 God makes a covenant with David, the son of Jesse, to establish his kingdom and to ensure that a son of his will reign over God’s people forever. But only two generations later, the kingdom splits and David’s line reigns over only two of the twelve tribes of Israel. A few centuries after that, the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and from that point onward the throne of David remains empty. But the prophets are adamant that “There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root” (Isaiah 11:1, Douay-Rheims). The words of the prophets point not only to a future king for the nation of Israel, but to God’s enduring faithfulness to his covenant promises and the blessing he has in store for all the nations.

December 20 – O Clavis David – Key of 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.

The key is the sign of royal authority in the Davidic kingdom—which is the kingdom of God: “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). The Messiah comes not merely to rule an earthly nation, but to open the gates of the heavenly kingdom and lead the captives rejoicing into the new Jerusalem (see Isaiah 51:11, Revelation 21:1-4).

December 21 – O Oriens – O Dawn of the East, O Dayspring

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

John proclaims at the beginning of his gospel that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). This light is not an abstract concept, but a Person: Jesus, “the light of the world” (John 8:12; cf. Isaiah 9:2 and Luke 1:78-79). He is the “sun of righteousness” who rises “with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2) and ends our exile, bringing about the day of the Lord with its endless light (see Zechariah 14:7, Revelation 22:5).

December 22 – O Rex Gentium – King of the Nations

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 from the dust.

The salvation that Jesus brings is not for Israel alone, but through Israel for all the nations: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:27-28).

December 23 – O Emmanuel – God with Us

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

Emmanuel means “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). God himself has made his dwelling with us (John 1:14), and we rejoice, for “The Lord, [our] God, is in [our] midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over [us] with gladness, he will renew [us] in his love; he will exult over [us] with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:14, 17)!

When we look back from the end of the O Antiphons at the first letter of each of the titles in Latin—Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia—we read the Latin phrase ero cras, “I will be [there] tomorrow!”

Surely, he is coming soon. Amen. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

Ashley Crane

Ashley has been with the Lay Division since 2012, teaching for both the Biblical and Catechetical Schools, and also serving as the Blog and Social Media Coordinator. She has a B.A. in Psychology and International Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.A. in Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. In addition to teaching and writing for the Lay Division, Ashley has contributed to several spiritual formation resources published by the Augustine Institute, including the LECTIO series and the Signs of Grace sacrament preparation series. A life-long lover of stories, Ashley is living out her own adventure--equal parts comedy, drama, and farce--with her husband and five children in Denver, Colorado.

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