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The “O Antiphons” of Advent

December 17, 2021 - December 24, 2021

The O Antiphons of Advent (USCCB)

The Roman Church has been singing the “O” Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative “Come!” embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.

December 17

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

December 18

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

December 19

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

December 20

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

December 21

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

December 22

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

December 23

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

—From Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers

The O Antiphons developed during the Church’s very first centuries. The writer Boethius (+525) mentions them. By the 8th century they were in use in Rome. There are seven of these special antiphons, and their texts spring from the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, the Prophetic and Wisdom Books. They are found in the Liturgy of the Hours or older Roman Breviary, which clerics, religious, consecrated virgins, and others use for daily prayer.

The O Antiphons are short prayers sung before and after the Magnificat, the great prayer of Mary in Luke 1:46-55 when coming visit to Elizabeth her cousin the Virgin praised God for His favor wondrous deeds. The Magnificat is sung during Vespers, evening prayer. The O Antiphons begin on 17 December, seven days before the Vigil of Christmas (24 December). The seventh and last antiphon is sung at Vespers on 23 December. They are called the “O Antiphons” because they all begin with the letter-word “O”: they address Jesus by one of His Old Testament titles.  They are fervent prayers asking Our Lord to come to us.

Advent is about the many ways in which the Lord comes.  He came historically at Bethlehem in the fullness of time. In the liturgical year he comes to us sacramentally.  He will come again at the end of the world as Judge of the living and the dead.  Christ comes to us also in the two-fold consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ by the priest at Holy Mass and, in a special way in a good Holy Communion.  He comes in the person of the priest, who is alter Christus, another Christ.  He comes in the words of Holy Scripture. He also comes in the person of our neighbor, especially those who are in need of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

During Advent, John the Baptist has been reminding us in the liturgy to “make straight His paths”. When we come to the Lord in death, or He comes to us in His Second Coming, He will make straight the path whether we have during our earthly lives done our best to straighten it ahead of time or not. Let us now, while we may, make straight the paths by which Christ Jesus comes.

Here are two more interesting notes about these O Antiphons.

The first is not apparent in English, but it can be seen clearly in the official language of the Roman Catholic Church: Latin. The Latin versions of each of the titles of the Messiah are: Sapientia (Wisdom), Adonai (Lord), Radix (Root), Clavis (Key), Oriens (Dawn), Rex (King), and Emmanuel (Emmanuel).  Take the first letters of each of the titles, starting with the last and working back to the first. You spell: EROCRAS or “ero cras… I will be (there) tomorrow”.

The song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is simply a reworking of the seven O Antiphons. When you sing it, you are joining yourself to a vast throng of Christians stretching back across centuries and spanning the whole of the earth who prayed as all Christians do, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)

The O Antiphons (click on each one and listen)

17 Dec. O Sapientia
18 Dec. O Adonai
19 Dec. O Radix Jesse
20 Dec. O Clavis David
21 Dec. O Oriens
22 Dec. O Rex Gentium
23 Dec. O Emmanuel


 

“O Antiphons” for the Week before Christmas

Introduction: Most familiar today from the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the seven traditional “O Antiphons” are actually more than a thousand years old. They have long been used at the very end of Advent (Dec. 17-23) in the liturgical prayer of the Church, as Antiphons for the “Magnificat” sung or recited during Vespers (the Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours). Since the Second Vatican Council, they have also been adapted (slightly reworded and rearranged) for the “Alleluia Verse” of the Mass (the short scriptural text or paraphrase that immediately precedes the Gospel reading). Each Antiphon invokes the coming of the Messiah, beginning with a biblical title and closing with a specific petition.

The following chart provides a comparative overview of the Latin versions and English translations of the texts used in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Lectionary for Mass, as well as the lyrics from the Advent hymn and some references to a few scriptural passages upon which these texts were based. In the traditional arrangement, when viewed from Christmas Eve backward, the first letters of the Latin texts (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia) spell out the phrase ero cras (“I come tomorrow”).

 

Antiphon for the Magnificat during
Evening Prayer, Liturgy of the Hours
Alleluia Verse,
Lectionary for Mass
(#201)
Latin & English Lyrics,
Traditional Hymn
Biblical
Texts
Dec. 17:
O Sapientia
, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
suaviter disponensque omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
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.
Dec. 17:
Sapientia Altissimi, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
Veni, O Sapientia, quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae ut doceas et gloriae.
(2) O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Sirach 24:3; Wisdom 8:1

Isaiah 11:2-3; 28:29; 40:3-5

Proverbs 8:1-36

John 1:1-5

Dec. 18:
O Adonai
, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
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.
Dec. 18:
Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in bracchio extento.
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
Veni, Veni, Adonai, qui populo in Sinai
legem dedisti vertice in maiestate gloriae.
(3) O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Exodus 3:2; 6:2-3, 6, 12

Isaiah 33:22; 63:11-12

Micah 6:4

Acts 7:30-31

Dec. 19:
O Radix Jesse
, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
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.
Dec. 19:
Radix Iesse, stans in signum populorum:
veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
Veni, O Iesse virgula, ex hostis tuos ungula,
de spectu tuos tartari educ et antro barathri.
(4) O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Isaiah 11:1, 10

Isaiah 5:15; 52:15

Habakkuk 2:3

Romans 15:12; Hebrews 10:37

Dec. 20:
O Clavis David
, et sceptrum domus Israel,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
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.
Dec. 20:
Clavis David, qui aperis portas aeterni Regni:
veni et educ vinctum de domo carceris sedentem in tenebris.
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
Veni, Clavis Davidica, regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum, et claude vias inferum.
(5) O Come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.
Revelation 3:7

Isaiah 22:22; 42:7

Jeremiah 13:13; 51:19

Matthew 4:16; 16:19

Luke 1:79

Dec. 21:
O Oriens
, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
Dec. 24, Morning Mass:
Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae et sol iustitiae:
veni et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death!
Veni, Veni O Oriens, solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas, dirasque mortis tenebras.
(6) O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Isaiah 9:1; 58:8; 60:18-20

Zechariah 6:12; Malachi 4:2

Luke 1:78-79; John 8:12

Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 22:16

Dec. 22:
O Rex Gentium
, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
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.
Dec. 22 & 23:
Rex gentium et lapis angularis Ecclesiae:
veni et salva hominem quem de limo formasti.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
Veni, Veni, Rex Gentium, Veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos peccati sibi conscios.
(7) O Come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.
Isaiah 2:4; 11:10; 28:16

Psalm 47:8; Jeremiah 10:7

Daniel 7:14; Haggai 2:8

Romans 15:12; Ephesians 2:14, 20

Dec. 23:
O Emmanuel
, Rex et legifer noster,
expectratio gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domines, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.
Dec. 21:
Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King, and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.
(1) O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Genesis 49:10

Isaiah 7:14; 8:8; 33:22

Matthew 1:23

1 Timothy 4:9

. . Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!
Psalm 14:7

Phil 4:4

Note that the first verse of the popular hymn is actually the last of the traditional “O Antiphons” (for Dec. 23!), while the other verses of the hymn (in the order printed in most hymnals) correspond to the Antiphons for Dec. 17 to Dec. 22.

  • Unfortunately, many churches sing the first verse over and over again throughout the Advent season, maybe also sing verses two and three, but never get around to singing the other beautiful verses.
  • Ideally, the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” ought to be sung only during the last week of Advent. But since it is so popular, and some people might not even realize that it was Advent unless they heard this hymn, it could be sung earlier, possibly even each Sunday (to help unify the season liturgically).
  • Yet if this is done, there are better ways of distributing the verses over the four weeks. Since most people know the tune so well, one could easily the first verse until the end, and people could just as easily sing the other verses on the first three Sundays of Advent. To maintain the traditional order, here is one possible suggestion:
    • First Sunday: Verses 2 (Wisdom) & 3 (Lord)
    • Second Sunday: Verses 4 (Rod of Jesse) & 5 (Key of David)
    • Third Sunday: Verses 6 (Dayspring) & 7 (Desire of Nations)
    • Fourth Sunday: Verse 1 (Emmanuel) & repeat one or two others
  • Or, if your congregation insists on singing the first verse on the first Sunday, then at least all sing the other verses throughout the season. Here’s another possible suggestion (to be adapted, depending on how many verses your congregation normally sings):
    • First Sunday: Verses 1 (Emmanuel) & 2 (Wisdom) & 3 (Lord)
    • Second Sunday: Verses 3 (Lord) & 4 (Rod of Jesse) & 5 (Key of David)
    • Third Sunday: Verses 5 (Key of David) & 6 (Dayspring) & 7 (Desire of Nations)
    • Fourth Sunday: Verse 1 (Emmanuel) & any others you wish to repeat

Note also that the refrain of the hymn has awkward phrasing in English:

  • Since there is a musical pause after the word “Emmanuel,” most untrained singers naturally take a breath there. As a result, we seem to be telling God to rejoice, while the second phrase is an incomplete thought:
    • “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel!” // “Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • A good choir might be able to sing the whole phrase without a pause, or else be trained to breathe after the second “rejoice” and to sing the rest without a pause:
    • “Rejoice, rejoice!” // “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
  • But for the average singer in most congregations, it might be better to rearrange the word order, to keep the breathing pause at the usual place, but provide clearer meaning:
    • “Rejoice, rejoice, O Israel!” // “To thee shall come Emmanuel.”
  • This phrasing is very similar to the Spanish-language translation:
    • ¡Alégrate, oh Israel! ¡Vendrá, vendrá Emmanuel!

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Start:
December 17, 2021
End:
December 24, 2021