What are theFR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS
What are the "O Antiphons"?
“O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted)
preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover
the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas,
Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being
for the Christmas Vigil.
The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is
not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting
their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire),
these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending
rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth
century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of
the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases,
“Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance.
One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have
been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah:
O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix
Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David),
O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the
Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of
Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. Let’s now look at each antiphon with
just a sample of Isaiah’s related prophecies :
“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.” Isaiah had
prophesied, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom
and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge
and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” (11:2-3),
and “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom.” (28:29).
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.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But He
shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of
his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” (11:4-5); and “Indeed the Lord
will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver,
the Lord our king, he it is who will save us.” (33:22).
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.”
Isaiah had prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (11:1), and A On that day, the root
of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for
his dwelling shall be glorious.” (11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the
father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the
house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah
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.” Isaiah had prophesied, AI will
place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will
shut, when he shuts, no one will open.” (22:22), and “His dominion is
vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over His kingdom, which
he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.”
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.”
Isaiah had prophesied, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great
light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” (9:1).
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.” Isaiah had prophesied, “For a child is
born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him
Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (9:5), and
“He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They
shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one
nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war
again.” (2:4) .
O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”
Isaiah had prophesied, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin
shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
Remember “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.”
to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the
Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts
with the last title and takes the first letter of each one - Emmanuel,
Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia
- the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.”
Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom
we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow,
I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to
our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
Saunders, Rev. William. “What are the ‘O Antiphons’?” Arlington
Reprinted with permission of the Arlington Catholic
William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College
and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article
is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father Saunders is also the author of Straight
Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral
Press in Baltimore.
Copyright © 2003 Arlington