Every year on Dec. 17, the Church begins praying the O Antiphons. These seven short but beautiful gems, all beginning with an “O,” mark a shift in the focus of the season of Advent and count down the last seven days before Christmas with building anticipation. Dating back to the fourth century and rooted in imagery from the Old Testament, each antiphon rises up from our deepest desire for God while also providing us hints and glimmers of God’s desire of us. Taken together, the O Antiphons petition God to come and save us by fulfilling the Scriptures.
These seven antiphons are recited just before the Magnificat during Vespers (evening prayer) from the Liturgy of the Hours during the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil. The importance of the O Antiphons is twofold — each highlights a title for the Messiah, while also referring to a prophecy of Isaiah of the coming Messiah.
We now take a closer look at each antiphon and some of the related prophecies of Isaiah.
O Sapientia: 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 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,” (Isaiah 11:2-3) and “Wonderful is his counsel and great is his wisdom.” (Isaiah 28:29)
O 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 prophesied, “But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly 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,” (Isaiah 11:4-5) and “Indeed, the Lord in majesty will be there with us; For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king, he it is who will save us.” (Isaiah 33:22)
O Radix 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 prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom,” (Isaiah 11:1) and “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.” (Isaiah 11:10) 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 5:1)
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 prophesied, “I will place the Key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open,” (Isaiah 22:22) and “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” (Isaiah 9:6)
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 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.” (Isaiah 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 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,” (Isaiah 9:5) and “He shall judge between the nations and set terms for 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.” (Isaiah 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 prophesied, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Remember, “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.”
Whether by chance or intent, the arrangement of these antiphons has a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each title of the Messiah – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Jesus, for whose coming we have prepared in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.