The exact origin of the antiphons is not known, but there is reference to them by Boethius (c. 480-524) which shows they are great antiquity and established usage. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The O Antiphons have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church. Each of them highlights a title for the Messiah and comes from the Prophecy of Isaiah. According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, ‘Tomorrow, I will come.’ Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the ‘Great O’ Antiphons, not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
17 December O Sapientia.
The first of the O Antiphons, O Sapientia, summons Wisdom from the throne of God: Wisdom, who orders and guides all of creation with a strong sweetness, and who shows us the path of knowledge which is salvation.
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.
“On him will rest the spirit of the Lord, the spirit of wisdom and insight, the spirit of counsel and power, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord: his inspiration will lie in fearing the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2-3), “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom.” (Isaiah 28:29).
19 December O Radix Jesse
The third O Antiphon O Radix Jesse takes its cue from chapter 11 of Isaiah, where the prophet speaks about the shoot that ‘will spring from the stock of Jesse’ and will ‘stand as a signal to the peoples’. But it is not until later in the book that the prophet gives some hints as to how that ‘rod/root/shoot’ of Jesse will save His people, as the texts for the gospel acclamation and hymn tell us he will.
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 you1: Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.
“A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse, a scion thrusts from his roots: on him the spirit of the Lord rests.” (Isaiah 11:1). “That day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It wll be sought out by the nations and its home will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10). We are also reminded in this of the Prophet Micah (5:1) that Jesse was the father of King David, and that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David born in David’s city, Bethlehem.
21 December O Oriens
The Fifth O Antiphon O Oriens,: When our Advent readings, particularly from Isaiah, use the language of darkness, this experience is what they are evoking. Isaiah is writing for a people invaded and subjugated by a foreign power, and taken into exile in Babylon. Life there was precarious, vulnerable and lived at the mercy of foreign rulers. When Isaiah talks about darkness, he does not mean a cosy winter evening with nothing much to do, but an experience of disorientation, vulnerability and helplessness: ‘turning his gaze upward, then down to earth, there will be only anguish, gloom, the confusion of night, swirling darkness. For is not everything dark as night for a country in distress?’ (Is 8:22–23)
O Oriens, O Radiant Dawn, splendour of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.” (Isaiah 9:1).
24 December O Emmanuel
The Seventh O Antiphon O Immanuel: When we hear ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ we are transported into a world of positive expectation. It would be fair to say that the Advent readings have not been particularly consoling. But now this is different, there is a promise here, a sound and sign in our ears that something is going to happen. We all want to embrace that hope, that future, that warmth which takes shape in that glorious word Immanuel – ‘God is with us’.
The word Immanuel appears three times in the Bible. In its first appearance, in Isaiah 7:14, King Ahaz is in a quandary. God has offered him a sign, an offer which the king refuses. Think how often people cry out for a sign, now here is Ahaz telling God he does not want one.
O Immanuel, O Immanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Saviour of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
“The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: The maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). Remember Immanuel means God is with us.
Marantatha (Aramaic for The Lord is Coming.).
18 December O Adonai!
O Adonai! This series on the O Antiphons promised us trauma and balm. There’s the catch in praying ‘O Adonai’: we call upon the mighty hand of God to set us free, hoping for cloud and majesty and awe, and what we hear back is ‘Yes, I already know and I already care and want you to do something about it’.
O Adonai, O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Mount Sinai: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
“He will judge the weak with integrity and give fair sentence for the humblest in the land. He will strike the country with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips bringing death to the wicked. Uprightness will be the belt around his waist and constancy the belt around his hips.” (Isaiah 11:4-5) “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King and our Saviour.” (Isaiah 33:22).
20 December O Clavis David
The forth O Antiphon O Clavis David: The one who now holds the key of David is the Risen Jesus and the words of the prophecy of Isaiah are alluded to here. What does the Key of David open now? The Key has opened the door to the heavenly Kingdom and the door remains open because of the Philadelphians’ proclamation of the name of Jesus.
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.
“I place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; should he open, no one shall close, should he close, no one shall open.” Isaiah 22:22). “Wide is his dominion in a peace that has no end, for the throne of David and for his royal power, which he establishes and makes secure in justice and integrity.” (Isaiah 9:6).
22 December O Rex Gentium
The Sixth O Antiphon O Rex Gentium: Antiphons. They’re the lines you say before and after the psalms during morning and evening prayer, aren’t they? In the case of the O Antiphons, they also find expression in daily Mass in the days leading up to Christmas, and in the hymn ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’.
The liturgical context is all well and good, but how do you pray with an antiphon? We know how to recite them, how to sing them, but there must be a way for us to make them more personal, to draw food for thought from them. When you’re not quite sure it’s always good to have an Ignatian fallback plan – imaginative contemplation.
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 from the dust.
“For there is a child born for us, a son given to us, and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace. (Isaiah 9:5). “He will wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples; these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war.” (Isaiah 2:4).