Sr. Louise Zdunich

January 16, 2012

QuestionI was at an event recently where the O Antiphons were mentioned. Can you tell me more about them?



AnswerAlthough specifically for Advent, these antiphons can be prayed the whole year. It's never too late to learn about them.

We are familiar with the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel sung in Advent. Its words and music come from the 12th to the 15th century. However, we may not be as familiar with the O Antiphons in the official Evening Prayer of the Church.

The word "antiphon" comes from the Greek antiphonis meaning resonating with. In the Liturgy of the Hours, antiphons precede the psalms and the canticle. Short Scriptural verses, they introduce and resonate with what follows. Antiphons introduce the reading of the Gospel.

The O Antiphons are special for they are like the precursor, John the Baptist, sending an urgent prayer to God to send the Messiah into our lives. From Dec. 17 to Dec. 23, one of the O Antiphons is recited or chanted before the Magnificat, part of Vespers.


Each begins with "O," that is, an exclamation of solemn address or invocation or of surprise and wonderment. These all apply to the antiphons for they are prayer, calling the Messiah to hurry and surprise us with his love and grace. This call becomes progressively more urgent during Advent.

Their origin is not certain. The philosopher, Boethius (c. 480-524) refers to them but they likely were composed in the seventh century. By the eighth century, they were part of the Roman liturgy. They were popular in the Middle Ages with church bells ringing as they were sung during Evening Prayer.

This rich mosaic of scriptural images of praise form historic progression beginning before creation to Bethlehem. Each praises the Messiah with a scriptural title and then cites his gifts, followed by a petition according to the title, ending with a call for his coming.

They have been described as a unique work of art and an ornament of the liturgy. They create liturgy resplendent with poetry. Their messianic theme depicts hope in the Saviour's coming. They add a growing, eager mood of expectation which climaxes on Christmas Eve with the celebration of the coming of Christ.

In Latin, the O Antiphons are Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis, Oriens, Rex Gentium and Emmanuel. Reversing their order and taking the first letter of each spells ero cras, meaning "Tomorrow, I come" which becomes Christ's response to the call for him to come quickly.

The first is O Wisdom for Jesus is Wisdom (Isaiah 11.2-3). Rooted in an awesome respect for God, it is knowledge of God completed by faith which leads to truth. Christ governs and orders all of creation, so we pray to him to show us the way to truth and salvation, authentic wisdom.

The second, O Sacred Lord, speaks to the Messiah as master and ruler and as the giver of the Law of Moses. We beg him to stretch out his mighty hand and set us free.

The third, O Root or Flower of Jesse's Stem, refers to King David's father from whose lineage the Messiah came (Isaiah 11.1) who will be acclaimed king by all nations. We request him to come set us free.

The fourth, O Key of David, the Messiah, opens doors that no one else can. We petition him to open the gates and free all those in darkness.

The fifth, O Radiant Dawn or Rising Sun is the Messiah, the eternal light and sun of justice. We solicit his light and grace for only he can enlighten us in our darkness.


The sixth is O King of all Nations, the desired of all peoples who makes them one in his kingdom. We entreat him to save God's creation, humankind, made from clay.

The seventh, O Emmanuel, is God with us, God who dwells among his people, the king and the saviour of all. We beg him to remain with us, save us and set us free.

These antiphons can continue to sustain us the whole year. They make us more aware of who Christ is for us. Christ, Divine Wisdom, is our Lord. The Root of Jesse and the Key of David is our Radiant Dawn and King of all Nations.

He is our Emmanuel, the God who lives among us, with us and in us, the God who waits for us to open the door to his knock. Let us always be mindful of his presence.

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