The Great "O Antiphons" of Advent

Among the richest treasures of Advent are the Great "O Antiphons." The Antiphons are a series of seven ancient verses that use prophecy and biblical imagery to express the ever-present longing for Christ. They're beautiful, theologically deep poetry, and they serve as the “heralds of Christmas," reminding us that the fast of Advent is almost over and the feast of Christmas is almost here.

A different Antiphon is sung or chanted on each of the seven nights leading up to Christmas, beginning today, December 17.

The Great O Antiphons

December 17

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.

December 18

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.

December 19

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.

December 20

O Key of David and scepter 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,
hose who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 21

O Morning Star,
Splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death.

December 22

O King of the nations, and their desire,
The cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
Which you fashioned from clay.

December 23

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,
The hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican men's religious order, has a series of short videos on the Antiphons, all available at our YouTube page. Each video features one of the Antiphons sung in English plainchant, followed by brief commentary.


EXPLORING The ANTIPHONS' theological riches 

The Antiphons may be ancient, but they speak across the ages. Preceded by the poetic “O” to express yearning and wonder, each prays for Christ to come and adds a different dimension to that prayer: teach, redeem, deliver, lead, enlighten, and save. (The prayer “Come and save” appears twice, surely because it is the deepest cry of our hearts.)

Consider incorporating the Antiphons into your Advent practices, for example by reciting them as nightly prayers over the next week. To enrich your experience of the Antiphons, here are a other few things worth noting.

Origin: The Antiphons are old. They date at least to the 8th century, and probably earlier. If you think they sound familiar, you’re right -- the Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is actually a synthesis of the Antiphons.

The Gospel story: The story of the Gospel unfolds progressively in the Antiphons. December 17 tells of creation. December 18 recounts God’s giving of the Law to Israel. On December 19, we remember that out of Israel, from the line of Jesse, came Jesus, the promised Messiah. December 20 and 21 are allusions to Christ’s death and resurrection. December 22 and 23 foreshadow the Last Days when Christ, the hope of nations, will come again to save.

“Tomorrow I will be there”: Each Antiphon addresses Christ by a different title, a name or attribute by which He is known in Scripture. In the original Latin, the first letters of these titles form an acrostic that, spelled backwards, reads “Ero cras,” which means “Tomorrow I will be there.” 

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