Meditation Notes on the O AntiphonsFR. ROGER J. LANDRY
The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil.
On the evening of December 17 the final phase of preparation for Christmas
begins with the first of the great "O Antiphons" of Advent. These prayers are
seven jewels of liturgical song, one for each day until Christmas Eve. They seem
to sum up all our Advent longing for the Savior.
The "O Antiphons" are intoned
with special solemnity in monasteries at Vespers, before and after the Magnificat,
Mary's prayer of praise and thanksgiving from the Gospel of Luke (2:42-55), which
is sung every evening as the climax of this Hour of the Divine Office.
vestige of the "Great O's" can be seen in verses of the familiar Advent hymn,
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel".
The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold:
Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai
(O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O
Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel.
Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.
Let’s now look at each antiphon with just a sample of Isaiah’s related prophecies:
1) Come, Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding
creation with power and love: teach us to walk in the paths of knowledge.
(O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine
usque ad finem, fortiter sauviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam
O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all
things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in the way to
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 had 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.”
(11:2-3), and “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom.” (28:29).
Wisdom is here personified, present with God at the beginning of creation.
This is a prefigurement of Jesus, the eternal Word of God, the "logos" John described
in the opening of his gospel. Wisdom is the foundation of fear of the Lord, of
holiness, or right living: it is wisdom whom we bid to come and teach us prudence.
The cry "Come" will be repeated again and again, insistent and hope-filled.
Prov. 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her
1 Cor. 1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who
became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
Sirach 24:3: "From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and like
mist covered the earth".
Wisdom 8:1: "She reaches from end to end mightily
and governs all things well".
2) Come, Leader of Ancient Israel, giver of the Law
to Moses on Sinai: rescue us with your mighty power!
Adonai et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in
Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in bracchio extento)
O Come, O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height, in ancient
times didst give the law in cloud and majesty and awe.
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 had prophesied, “But He shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright 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.”
(11:4-5); and “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our
judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us.” (33:22).
"Adonai" is Hebrew for "my Lord", and was substituted by devout Jews
for the name "Yahweh", out of reverence. With this second antiphon we progress
from creation to the familiar story of God manifesting himself by name to Moses
and giving his law to Israel as their way of life. We are also reminded of the
Israelites' deliverance from bondage under pharaoh — a foreshadowing of our
own redemption from sin. The image of God's arm outstretched in power to save
his chosen people also brings to mind the later scene of Jesus with his arms outstretched
for us on the cross.
Exod. 3:1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law
Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came
to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in
a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was
not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight,
and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned
aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said,
“Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I
am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of
Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. 7 Then the Lord
said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard
their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up
out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey,
to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites,
the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me;
I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to
Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to
God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is
I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship
God on this mountain.” 13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask
me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am
Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent
me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and
the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title
for all generations. 16 Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them,
‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob,
has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done
to you in Egypt. 17 I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt,
to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the
Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 18 They will
listen to your voice; and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of
Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; let
us now go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, so that we may sacrifice
to the Lord our God.’ 19 I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let
you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and
strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will
let you go. 21 I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that,
when you go, you will not go empty-handed; 22 each woman shall ask her neighbor
and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold,
and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so
you shall plunder the Egyptians.”
Exodus 6:6: "Therefore say to the
Israelites: I am Yahweh. I will free you from the enforced labor of the Egyptians
and will deliver you from their slavery. I will rescue you by my outstretched
arm and with mighty acts of judgment".
Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem
of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth
for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient
Matt. 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no
means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is
to shepherd my people Israel.’”
3) Come, Flower of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love
for all his people: save us without delay.
Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem
gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare).
O Come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyrany; from depths of
hell thy people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.
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 had prophesied, “But
a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”
(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.” (11:10). Remember
also that 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).
Isaiah prophesied a restoration of David's throne
— a new branch budding out of the old root. Christ is the root of Jesse in
a two-fold sense: he is the descendant of David, who was the youngest son of Jesse,
and he inherited the royal throne. The angel foretold to Mary, "The Lord God will
give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob
forever and his reign will be without end" (Luke 1:32-33). Our hearts more and
more urgently cry out for God's reign to extend over all humanity: "Come, save
us, and do not delay".
Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:2: "See, my servant shall
prosper...So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless.
...He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot".
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations
shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule
the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
Rev. 5:5 Then one of
the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the
Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
4) Come, Key of David, opening the gates of God’s
eternal kingdom: free the prisoners of darkness!
(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
O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our
heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.)
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 had prophesied, AI will place the Key of the House of David on
His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open.”
(22:22), and “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne,
and over His kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.” (9:6).
The key and scepter are traditional symbols
of kingly power and authority. Christ, the anointed one, is the heir of David
and possessor of the kingdom. Jesus himself also made use of this symbol, showing
the prophetic relationship of the earthly kingdom of David to the kingdom of God.
All power and authority was given to him after the resurrection, and he entrusted
this power to "bind and to loose" to Peter and the ministers of his church. In
the closing petition we look to Jesus to unlock the fetters of sin that keeps
us tightly chained. It is he who frees us from our captivity. We recall the deliverance
proclaimed by the psalmist of old: "they dwelt in darkness and gloom, bondsmen
in want and in chains,...and he led them forth from darkness and gloom and broke
their bonds asunder" (Psalm 107: 10, 14).
Isaiah 22:22 I will place
on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall
shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.
Isaiah 42:6-7: "I formed
you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open
the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon
those who live in darkness".
Rev. 3:7 “And to the angel of the church
in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who
has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:
Matt. 4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and
for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Luke 1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
5) Come, Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light,
sun of justice: shine on those lost in the darkness of death!
(O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris et umbra mortis)
O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s
dark shadows put to flight.
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 had 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.” (9:1).
This title is variously translated "morning star", "Dayspring", "rising
sun", "radiant dawn", "orient". All beautifully express the idea of light shattering
the darkness of night, of sin and death, of sickness and despair, with its brightness
bringing healing and warmth to cold hearts. Jesus is indeed the true light, the
radiance of his Father's splendor. The church prays this petition daily in the
Benedictus, joining in the words of Zechariah: "He, the Dayspring, shall visit
us in his mercy to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death"
Luke 1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from
on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and
in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who
sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Mal. 4:2 But
for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in
its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
9:1: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who
dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone".
Malachi 3:20: "For you
who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays".
2 Peter 1:19: "Keep your attention closely fixed on it, as you would
on a lamp shining in a dark place, until the first streaks of dawn appear and
the morning star rises in your heart".
6) Come, King of all nations, source of your Church’s
unity and faith: save all mankind, your own creation!
(O Rex gentium et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum,:
veni et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti).
O Come, Desire of
nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and by thyself our Prince of Peace.)
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 had 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.” (9:5),
and “He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on 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.” (2:4) .
The earlier antiphons have already alluded to the Messiah
coming not only to Israel but to convert the gentile nations and redeem them for
his own. Now this sixth antiphon clearly addresses the savior as the king of the
gentiles (Jer.10:7) and the Desired One of the nations. The Messiah is the cornerstone
on whom our spiritual foundations are laid, but on whom unbelievers stumble (Matt.
21:42). This cornerstone unites and binds Jew and gentile into one, making peace
between them. The plea is that God save all humanity, all his creation that he
formed from the dust of the earth (Gen.2:7). We yearn for him once again to breathe
the breath of his new life into us.
Rev. 15:3 And they sing the song
of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are
your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
Ps. 118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief
Isaiah 28:16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am
laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure
foundation: “One who trusts will not panic.”
Ephesians 2:14: "He it
is who is our peace, and who made the two of us one by breaking down the barrier
of hostility that kept us apart".
Matt. 21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have
you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become
the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Mark 12:10 Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders
rejected has become the cornerstone;
Luke 20:17 But he looked at them
and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
Acts 4:11 This Jesus is ‘the stone that
was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’
2:20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus
himself as the cornerstone.
1 Pet. 2:6 For it stands in scripture: “See,
I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes
in him will not be put to shame.”
7) Come, Emmanuel, God’s presence among us, our King,
our Judge: save us, Lord our God!
(O Emmanuel, rex
et legisfer noster, espectatio gentium et salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine Deus noster).
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive
Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.
O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all
people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The Lord
himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.” (7:14). Remember “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.”
With this last antiphon our expectation finds joy now in the certainty of
fulfillment. We call Jesus by one of the most personal and intimate of his titles,
Emmanuel, God-with-us. We recall that in his birth from the Virgin Mary God takes
on our very flesh and human nature: God coming nearer to us than we could have
ever imagined! Yet he is also to be exalted above us as our king, the lawgiver
and judge, the one whom we honor and obey. And he is our savior, long-expected
by all creation. The final cry rises from us urgent in our need for daily salvation
and forgiveness of our sins, and confident that our God will not withhold himself
Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 8:8 it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over,
it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of
your land, O Immanuel.
Isaiah 33:22: "Indeed the Lord will be there
with us, majestic. Yes, the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our
king, he it is who will save us".
Matt. 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall
conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God
is with us.”
Hag. 2:7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the
treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor,
says the Lord of hosts.
Titles and Prayer Requests O Sapientia — Teach
us the way of prudence O Adonai et Dux — Come to redeem us with arm outstretched
O radix Iesse — Come to free us without delay O clavis David — Free us from prison
of darkness & shadow of death O oriens — Illumine those sitting in darkness &
the shadow of death O Rex gentium — Save man whom you formed from the dust O Emmanuel
— Come to save us
According to Professor
Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks
arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last
title and takes the first letter of each one — Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis,
Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning,
“Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared
for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now
speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity
to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
Fr. Roger J. Landry.
"Meditation Notes on the O Antiphons." Advent 2002.
Reprinted with permission
of Fr. Roger J. Landry.
Roger J. Landry was ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts
by Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap. in 1999. After receiving a biology degree from
Harvard College, Fr. Landry studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto, and
for several years in Rome. After his priestly ordination, Father returned to Rome
to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II
Institute for Marriage and Family. Father Landry is parochial administrator of
St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, MA, and executive editor of The
Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. His homilies are
posted each week at saintanthonynewbedford.com.
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