Editor’s Note: As we end the Christmas season and begin the season of Epiphany, Stephen Lynch provides this unique reflection on the O Antiphons.
The theology of Christmas is summed up in the O Antiphons, which stand as the liturgical centerpiece of the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23. The “O Antiphons” are taken from the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. The antiphons refer to the seven Messianic titles that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Latin antiphons are from the Breviarium Romanum, with the English versions from the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy. Biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
The seven O Antiphons are:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
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.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
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, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Sunrise, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence in his 5th Century written works. 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 8th century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. In some fashion, the O Antiphons have been part of the Catholic liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
Isaiah calls the Messiah the Wisdom of the Father, and he describes the Messiah as “coming forth from the mouth of the Most High”, which is very significant in light of the Christian doctrine, rooted in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, according to which, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is the incarnate Word of God the Father.
— Stephen, a resident of St. Francis Friary in Providence, R.I., writes frequently for religious and secular publications.