The O Antiphons

First, a liturgy lesson. Every day, all priests and religious recite or chant a rite of liturgical prayers called The Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours). There is a rite of prayer for several prayer hours throughout the day and night. During one of these hours, called Evening Prayer (or Vespers), the celebrant recites or chants the Magnificat prayer of Mary (Lk 1:46-55). Before and after this prayer an antiphon is recited or chanted, which is different for each day of the year.

Towards the end of Advent, from December 17 to December 23, there are a special set of seven antiphons for the Magnificat. They are called the O Antiphons, as they all begin with the acclamation, O, followed by an OT title of Christ; they each end with a plea to Jesus to come to us. Most Catholics recognize these O Antiphons in the Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. These antiphons date back at least to the 5th century. Let’s look at these OT titles as we prepare for Christmas.

December 17: O Wisdom

LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.

22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; 26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. 27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. 32 And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. 33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. 34 Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. 35 For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; 36 but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death." (Prov 8:22-36)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (Jn 1:1-3)

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17)

In this first antiphon, Jesus is called "Wisdom," and is described within the context of creation. All things were ordered according to Wisdom. There are several OT texts referring to Wisdom as the foundation of creation, but this text from Proverbs is quite satisfying. This text refers, however, to Wisdom as the first creation, but of course the Son of God is no Creature; then how can we call Jesus by the title, "Wisdom?" It is because He is the source of wisdom, which was His first creature, the supreme creature which guided all creation. And lest we think this wisdom is similar to human knowledge, a mere pragmatism, we should keep in mind Job 28:28: "And he [God] said to man, 'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom." Fear of the Lord, that gift of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:2), is the foundation of the universe. As a reminder from our catechesis, this is not a servile fear, but a filial fear, a desire to honor our beloved Father. All creation honors the Creator. And no one honors the Father more than the Son; if wisdom is a filial desire to honor the Father, then Jesus is the very paradigm of wisdom and we can understand how this title applies to Him.

December 18: O Lord of the house of Israel

LATIN: O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

ENGLISH: O Lord and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come, and redeem us with outstretched arms.

4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." 5 Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 6 And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God... 13 Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" 15 God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Ex 3:4-6, 13-15)

2 And when they set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mountain. 3 And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel." (Ex 19:2-6)

The title here is Adonai, which is the Hebrew word for "Lord," as in a ruler. Jesus is the Lord of the house of Israel, His covenant people who became a great nation (a "house") when God led them out of Egypt through Moses. God called Moses to his mission at the burning bush, where the Lord revealed His Name: I AM. He is the God-who-is, the only God, the necessary existence that is the source of existence itself. This creation of the nation of Israel can be said to have "happened" when God declared them to be His covenant people at Sinai, as described in the second text above. There He gave them His covenant Law (Ex 20:1-24:11). The key to this Mosaic covenant is in verses 24:8 and 24:11 - Moses threw "the blood of the covenant" on the people, then the elders "ate and drank" with God. This is the paradigm of the New Covenant Eucharist, the re-presentation of Calvary, where Jesus redeemed us from the cross, "with outstretched arms."

December 19: O Root of Jesse

LATIN: O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.

ENGLISH: O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: come, to deliver us, and tarry not.

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. (Is 11:1-2)

Jesse was the father of King David (1 Sm 17:12). As such, he was the patriarch, the origin, of the house of David, a monarchical dynasty that lasted throughout the history of Judah. It died when Judah succumbed to Babylonian invasion, but was revived in Jesus, the Davidic descendant who restored God's covenant people under a new covenant. The novelty of this new covenant is that gentiles enter into what was once reserved to the Jewish people. This shoot, or root, of Jesse has the Holy Spirit resting upon him and the gifts of the Spirit, as we already touched on above. These spiritual gifts pass on to us, and the manifestation of these gifts in us act as an ensign, a sign, of God's ecclesial people. As one sees these signs, one sees the Church.

December 20: O Key of David

LATIN: O clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris.

ENGLISH: O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and lead forth the captive who sits in the shadows from his prison.

20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, 21 and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 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. (Is 22:20-22)

16 Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:16-19)

As we saw above, Jesus is a new king of the house of David. Here, He is called the Key of the house of David, which is explained in this text of Isaiah. The narrative surrounds the chief steward under the Jewish king; a steward distributes the goods of the king - he has keys to open the doors where such goods are kept. So in the new covenant, there are spiritual goods to be distributed; our chief steward is Peter - the bishop of Rome. In our Johannine text, Jesus (the king) gave to Peter the keys of the chief steward. We receive our spiritual goods (grace) through Peter, which is distributed to each of us through his office of the steward: the priesthood. We can now see what is meant by leading forth captives who sit in the shadows of prison: it is our salvation, through grace. The analogy is that sinners are like prisoners in prison. We need to be set free; someone needs to unlock the prison doors. The keys of the steward, which unlock the storage rooms of the king's wealth, can also be seen as keys which unlock our prison doors and grant us freedom from sin. This is grace, the sharing of God's Life with us. Jesus is our grace; He is the key that opens the door to that grace.

December 21: O Dawn of the East

LATIN: O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.

ENGLISH: O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

1:11 For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; And everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; For great is my name among the nations, says the LORD of hosts... 4:2 But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays. (Mal 1:11, 4:2 NAB)

2 The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen. (Is 9:2 DRB)

19 You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Pt 1:19b)

The Lord is our light; He illuminates our darkness as the dawn illuminates the night and turns it into day. Jesus is the sun of justice who gives us the bright light of day. The prophet Malachi looked forward to a sun of justice who would shine on those who fear the Lord's name (RSVCE says "sun of righteousness" so I quoted from the NAB, which is more accurate here). A few chapters earlier, Malachi referenced the greatness of the Lord's name as he prophesied a future sacrifice offered by the gentile nations, which we understand to be the Eucharist. This antiphon also references a text from Isaiah referring to Jesus as a light to those in the darkness (I quoted here from the DRB, which is a more accurate translation here than the RSVCE). Mt 4:12-16 refers to this text and directly attributes it to Jesus. He is the Oriens, the morning star, the dawn, who will illuminate our hearts.

December 22: O King of the Gentiles

LATIN: O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

ENGLISH: O King of the gentiles and their desired One, the cornerstone that makes both one: come, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples. (Is 2:2-4)

16 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation. (Is 28:16)

10 Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. (Acts 4:10-11)

If we remember that "the nations" normally means the Gentile nations, then we see in the first text from Isaiah the Lord as king of the Gentiles. He rules from Zion, the Jerusalem palace of the Davidic dynasty located on Mt. Zion. The second text again refers to Zion, this time in the language of builders: A cornerstone is laid as the foundation of a building, the cornerstone being Christ. The text from Acts quotes Peter, who in turns quotes from Ps 118:22. He clarifies that this cornerstone is, in fact, an OT type of Christ. This cornerstone was rejected by the builders, that is, Jesus was rejected by the priests of His day; but He became the foundation stone of the Church. As head of the Church, Christ is king over all the nations.

December 23: O Emmanuel

LATIN: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

ENGLISH: O Emmanuel, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el. (Is 7:14)

20 But as he [Joseph] considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). (Mat 1:20-23)

The Hebrew word, Emmanuel, means "God with us." Of course nothing and no one could fulfill this title more so than Jesus. Matthew made it clear this is the correct understanding of Isaiah's text. But Matthew also notes that Mary's child is to be called Jesus (Yeshua), a Hebrew name that means "Yahweh saves." The angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save his people from their sins; he will be their Savior.

The O Antiphons end with Vespers (or Evening Prayer) of December 23. Liturgically, Christmas Day begins with Vespers of December 24.

As a final twist, there is an interesting puzzle built into these antiphons, considering the original Latin (which is why I included the Latin of each antiphon). The OT titles form an acrostic when read in reverse order. Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia: EROCRAS. Ero cras is a Latin sentence. It means, “I will come tomorrow.” It is Jesus’ reply to the pleas of these antiphons.