The O Antiphons

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.

Taken from USCCB website

Annunciation from the Book of Hours of Jean of France Duc de Berry (Metropolitan Museum)


Excerpted from The Sunday Visitor article by D.D. Emmons

The “Chief Hours”

Besides Sunday worship, Christians have long prayed at set times every day. In the tradition of the Jewish synagogue, the apostles and first Christians praised God at least three times daily. To the extent they could avoid the Roman persecutions, they would pray together. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, such daily prayers were called the Divine Office, but following the council these prayer periods became known as the Liturgy of the Hours. The council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sancrosanctum Concilium) encourages the laity to “recite the divine office [Liturgy of the Hours], either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually” (No. 100). The “chief hours” of the day, according to this same council document are morning prayer (lauds) and evening prayer (vespers) (see No. 89).

While the laity are encouraged to participate either individually or collectively, congregating to pray the hours together is today mostly found, and obligatory, in religious communities. The content of these prayer times include hymns, canticles, antiphons, psalms and Scripture readings. At evening prayer, the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55), is recited. Before and after the canticle, a short verse, a solemn antiphon, is read from Scripture or a psalm. This antiphon varies each day and ties the canticle to the season of the year, a feast and to a particular reading. In “The Liturgical Year, Advent” (Newman Press, Westminster Md., 1951, p. 509), Dom Prosper Gueranger writes, “These antiphons are sung at the Magnificat to show us that the Savior whom we expect is come to us by Mary.”

The Special Antiphons

Beginning Dec. 17 of each Advent season, and for the next seven days, a special antiphon known as an O Antiphon is read before the Magnificat during evening prayer. Sometimes called the Greater Antiphons, or the O’s of Advent (because they begin with that exclamation), the O Antiphons differ from the daily antiphons because they herald the coming birth of Christ. Originally written in Latin around the seventh or eighth centuries, these special antiphons are verses extracted from the Old Testament prophets — namely, Isaiah — and express the longing for the coming of the Christ. In fact, the word “come” is used in every O Antiphon.

Each of the seven antiphons begins by addressing Jesus using an Old Testament title for the Messiah. These seven names or titles, all from the Book of Isaiah, are:

Dec. 17, O’ Sapientia (meaning O Wisdom), from Isaiah 11:2-3.

Dec. 18, O’ Adonai (O Lord or Ruler), 11:4-5 and 33:22.

Dec. 19, O’ Radix (O Root of Jesse), 11:1.

Dec. 20, O’ Clavis (O Key of David), 22:22.

Dec. 21, O’ Oriens (O Radiant Dawn), 9:1.

Dec. 22, O’ Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), 2:4.

Dec. 23, O’ Emmanuel (O God with Us), 7:14.

It is widely pointed out that if you take the first letter of each Latin name and reverse the order — that is, begin with E from Emmanuel, then Rex Gentium and so on you will spell the word EROCRAS, which in Latin means “I shall come tomorrow.”

Many families add the Greater Antiphons to their prayers during Advent. These beautiful antiphons are like a drum roll growing to a crescendo as the seven days bring us closer to the Christmas miracle of God made flesh, born as a babe and, with few exceptions, mostly unnoticed by mankind. Each of the seven Greater Antiphons are also sung or recited as the Alleluia verse (or antiphon) before the Gospel at daily Mass Dec. 17-23.

Sometime before the 12th century, the exact date and author being unknown, selected verses from the seven antiphons were compiled into the hymn we today call “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” During the Middle Ages this hymn was an important teaching and worship aid to a society that was largely illiterate and had few Bibles. In the 19th century, the Latin version of the hymn was translated into English by an Anglican priest named John Neale. He called his original translation “Draw Neigh, Draw Neigh, Emmanuel,” but in 1854 he renamed the song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which, given its history, is believed to be among the oldest of all the Christmas hymns. TCA

D.D. Emmons writes from Mount Joy, Pa.