What Are the O Antiphons?

On the First Sunday of Advent, Christians everywhere make a collective and noticeable turn toward Christmas, toward the coming birth of Jesus.

Throughout the next four weeks our day-to-day routines give way to divine preparation and joyful anticipation; the world is bathed in lights, complete strangers exchange “Merry Christmas” and mankind eagerly awaits the Christ Child.  

The ageless Gospels that are read during Mass reflect on John the Baptist, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity. The clergy don purple vestments, the giving tree suddenly appears, and we are inspired by the seasonal hymns reminding us that a great event is about to happen. Past the halfway point of Advent the beautiful O Antiphons are introduced into the daily prayer life of the Church. These mostly ancient and thought-provoking verses fit the season perfectly, but why are they called O Antiphons? 

What Is an Antiphon?

To say there are a variety of definitions regarding antiphons would be an understatement. One that mostly fits how they are used today was written over 170 years ago by Blessed John Henry Newman in his book “Tracts for the Times, Vol. III” (J.G.F. & J. Rivington, London, & J.H. Parker, Oxford, 1840, pp. 22-23): “The Antiphons or Anthems are sentences preceding and succeeding the Separate Psalms and Songs, and are ordinarily verses taken from the particular compositions to which they are attached. They seem to answer the purpose of calling attention to what is coming, of interpreting it, or of pointing out the particular part of it which is intended to bear on Service of the day…. They are repeated at the end, as if to fix the impression or the lesson intended.” 

Cardinal Newman continues, “Antiphons are not, strictly speaking, Prayers, but sentences applied to the particular purpose of meditation, thanksgiving & …” So an antiphon is a verse that gives emphasis to what follows, such as a prayer, psalm, Scripture or canticle. Canticles, a sacred song or chant, are part of the daily prayers of the Church and often preceded by an antiphon. 

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.