The Christmas “O Antiphons”

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stephen Lynch shares his understanding of the “O Antiphons,” the seven Messianic titles that are recited or chanted preceding the Magnificat during Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Most people don’t realize that the theology of Christmas is summed up in the “O Antiphons,” which stand as the liturgical centerpiece of the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17 to 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 New Revised Standard Version.

The seven “O Antiphons”

Dec. 17:

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.

Dec. 18:

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.

Dec. 19:

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.

Dec. 20: 

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.

Dec. 21:

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.

Dec. 22:

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.

Dec. 23:

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.

Of Unknown Origin
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 sixth 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 eighth 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.

While the O Antiphons focus on Jesus as Messiah, the Birth Story Gospels focus on Mary as modeling the obedience Jesus would himself later exemplify. All human beings are called to submit to the Divine Will in so far as one can understand it. Like Mary, we all need the Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment both to understand God’s Will and to live in obedience, even when that demands sacrifice and acceptance of the trials of life.

Seeing God in All Things
Thirteen hundred years after the first Christmas, St. Francis of Assisi, blessed with the gift of discernment, saw the Christ-presence in all of creation. Because Francis saw God as all in all, his favorite prayer was “My God and My All.” Francis honored Jesus Christ as the visible presence of the invisible God. He treated all creation as his brothers and sisters because all had the same Father-Creator.  Francis learned obedience to the Divine Will by accepting the crucible of suffering.

Francis shared in the sufferings of others through compassion and neighborly love.  The essence of Francis’ preaching centered on the reality that God loves us in spite of our human failings, weaknesses and limitations. He was convinced that Jesus wanted people to be more “for each other,” and less “for themselves.” Francis stands as the poor man who enriched the world. The birth story of Jesus Christ literally touched St. Francis’ soul.

— Fr. Stephen ministers at Church of St. Mary in Providence, R.I.  To locate his past HNP Today reflections, use the search feature on HNP’s Web site.