Monday January 18th 2021

What are the O Antiphons?

In the Catholic tradition, the O Antiphons are sung or recited at Vespers from December 17 to December 23.

The O antiphons are, in fact, a collage of Old Testament types of Christ stressing the hope of the Savior’s coming.

The O Antiphons have been described as “a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God”.  They “create a poetry that fills the liturgy like a Radiant Dawn with splendor of eternal light.

In their structure, each of the seven antiphons follows the same pattern, resembling a traditional liturgical prayer.  Each O Antiphon begins with an invocation of the expected Messiah, followed by praise of him under one of his particular titles or names.  Each ends with a petition for God’s people, relevant to the title by which he is addressed, and the cry for him to “Come”. These are the last words of the Holy Bible: Come Lord Jesus!

The seven titles are:  attributed to Jesus in the antiphons are Wisdom (O Sapientia in Latin – December 17), Ruler of the House of Israel (O Adonai – December 18), Root of Jesse (O Radix – December 19), Key of David (O Clavis – December 20), Rising Dawn (O Oriens – December 21), King of the Gentiles (O Rex – December 22). and God is With Us (O Emmanuel – December 23).  In Latin the initials of the titles make an acrostic which, when read backwards. means: “Tomorrow I will be there” (“Ero cras”).  To the medieval mind this was clearly a reference to the approaching Christmas vigil.

  • 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.”
  • O Adonai: “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
  • 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 you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”
  • 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
  • O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
  • 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.”
  • O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”

There is an alternative English medieval practice, which is often practiced, which consists in moving all of the antiphons forward by one day (commencing therefore on 16 December) and adding an additional (eighth) antiphon on 23 December, with the acrostic thus becoming Vero cras, “truly, tomorrow”. This is the antiphon O Virgo virginum (O Virgin of virgins), with the following text:

  • O Virgo Virginum: O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?  For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.  Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

These precious prayers are truly a gift to assist us enter into the Divine Mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation and these “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion to help us catch the wave of Divine love and to take us to eternal shores of heaven since He came from: “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.  Of Her was born Jesus who is called Christ…Ero Cras….. Vero cras…

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