Have you ever wondered what the “O Antiphons” of Advent are? You might have heard religious or priests getting excited about these every year; the “great Os”, as they are also known.
These are the seven antiphons that accompany the recitation of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer, over the seven days from 17th to 23rd December.
Each begins with an “O”, invoking the Lord Jesus who is to come, with a different title. They were instituted in the 7th century, and each has deep theological roots in the Old Testament. Reading the first letter of each title (in the Latin) provides an interesting acrostic in reverse:
Sapientia – Wisdom
Adonai – Lord
Radix – Root
Clavis – Key
Oriens – Dayspring
Rex – King
Emmanuel – Emmanuel
“Ero cras” means “I will be [there] tomorrow”.
“O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner. O come to teach us the way of truth.”
Wisdom is the explicit theme of seven of the Old Testament books, all of which personify her as coexistent with God.
In the Book of Sirach, she says of herself, “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High”: a reference to the creative Word of God in Genesis 1. This is the same Word through whom all things were made (cf. John 1:3): the Incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the Book of Wisdom, Solomon writes of her, “She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well”. Thus the antiphon picks up the long-held understanding of creation as, not simply a momentary act akin to setting things off, but a continuous and permanent act of holding all things in being. As St Augustine is keen to emphasise, though Christ became incarnate and therefore mortal insofar as He took on our human nature, in His Divinity He remained present everywhere and in all things.
Finally, Wisdom invites us to “walk in the way of insight”, following her invitation to her banquet (Proverbs 9). And so the antiphon concludes by asking Him who is “the way, the truth and the light” (John 14) to teach us His way as we walk towards the great Mystery of His birth on earth.
And so the first of the seven antiphons sets the metaphysical scene, pointing us to “the beginning” of both the Old Testament and the New, to the Coming of the Almighty One in human form.
The word “Adonai” is a particular Hebrew term for “Lord”. Yet it is retained in the original Latin antiphon, rather than being translated to “Dominus”. The term is only used twice in the Vulgate (Latin) Bible. The only explanation for its usage in the antiphon is the author’s intended acrostic (see above)!
The first time “Adonai” is used in the Bible is when God reveals His name as “the LORD” to Moses. And so this second antiphon points us to the second essential thing that we, with our Jewish ancestors, can say about God: He is the Lawgiver.
The Latin words that refer to the Lord’s appearance in the burning bush are not taken directly from Exodus, but are a literal quotation from St Stephen’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus a discrete reference is inserted to the New Testament and to Christ.
The words either side of that phrase – referring to the leader of Israel and the Law on Sinai – are not found directly anywhere in the Old Testament, although they refer to Israel’s exodus from Egypt and to the Covenant formed with them. Equally, the last phrase, “Come and save us…” seems to refer to Moses’ song of thanksgiving after the crossing of the Red Sea.
So how does all this relate to Christmas? According to ancient Christian tradition, the revelation of the Old Testament was considered to be the Revelation, however veiled, of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. The God Who spoke to our ancestors spoke through His Word, Who becomes incarnate in the Christmas mystery. Hence Catholic theology has always seen a spiritual prefigurement or foreshadowing of the New Testament in the physical events of the Old Testament.
The leader of Israel, the One Who sets us free from the land of slavery, Who leads us through the waters of Baptism that wipe away all evil, and Who forms an irrevocable covenant in His blood on the mount, is Christ the Lord: the One Whose coming we await.
Today’s antiphon follows on from Exodus by turning to the prophecies of the Promised Messiah.
The first sentence of the antiphon is a reference to Isaiah 11:10 (“In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek”). It is also quoted by St Paul (Romans 15:12), who confirms that the long-awaited Messiah has arrived.
However, inserted into this reference to Isaiah 11 is the phrase, “Kings fall silent before you”. This does not relate to any of the glorious and kingly prophecies, but comes from the Song of the Suffering Servant, in Isaiah 52. After describing how this Servant will suffer and be disfigured beyond recognition, Isaiah adds: “kings shall shut their mouths because of him”.
So this antiphon, in its first line, succinctly refers us directly to the Easter mystery, forecasting the Passion, but more significantly, the exultation of the Servant that will follow, through His Resurrection. And crucially, as Isaiah already suggests, this Redemption will be universal: for all the nations, the kings and peoples.
The final phrase, “do not delay,” is a direct reference to a particular prophecy of Habakkuk, who is given a vision by the Lord. In the Jewish tradition, this vision, which “awaits its time”, concerns the promised Messiah. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the pronouns referring to the vision are changed to masculine (whereas “vision” is feminine in Hebrew), as a direct reference to the Messiah. The prophecy is then picked up by both the letter to the Hebrews and by St Peter’s letter in the New Testament, thus taking up this refrain again in expectation of Christ’s Second Coming.
In this way, the third antiphon at once captures both the historic manifestation of the Messiah, with His Saving Mission, and His future arrival with the renewal of the heavens and the earth.
The prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 22, from which the first half of this antiphon is drawn, invests Eliakim as master of the royal household. This imagery is taken up in Revelation 3:7, in which Eliakim is replaced by Christ, the true Master. An echo of the imagery of the binding power of the key can perhaps be heard in Christ’s words to Peter in Matthew 16, in which Peter is given that power to bind and to loose by the Lord.
Into this phrase is inserted a reference to Genesis 49:10, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah”. This is a further allusion to the promise of a kingly Messiah, as made to Jacob: he who would become known as Israel, and the father of a great nation.
The second half once again refers us to the Song of the Suffering Servant. Isaiah 42:7 speaks of the Lord who has come “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” To this is added “the shadow of death”, a phrase that is repeated twice in Psalm 106, which gives thanks to the Lord for His saving help.
Following on from the previous antiphon, “O Key of David” makes clear the saving action of the Messiah, His absolute power over life and death and His mission of Redemption.
The fifth antiphon comes together out of a coincidence of literary necessity, the calendar and its relation to the previous antiphon.
Any literary-sensitive person will note the discomfort of “Oriens” following on from “O”. However, as with “Adonai”, “Oriens” in part serves to complete the acrostic that the antiphons form. Before despairing at such a utilitarian approach however, it has to be observed that the calendar comes to the rescue by providing an objective significance to this choice of words: 21st December is also the winter solstice. From now on, in the northern hemisphere, the Sun’s light indeed begins to increase and to rise earlier.
And this contrast between light and darkness, so aptly captured by St John in the prologue to His Gospel, also describes the relationship of this antiphon to its predecessor. The “Rising Sun” (or “Dayspring”, in some translations), follows immediately from the previous plea for freedom for “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”
Before returning to the repetition of this last phrase, there are the three, distinct, light-themed invocations to consider, all of which are grounded in the Old Testament.
“Rising Sun” contains a duplicate reference. The Greek word, anatole, was used to signify not only “rising sun” but also “shoot” or “branch”. Anatole was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12, both of which are Messianic prophecies referring to the Shoot or Branch. When St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he chose to translate these texts with the Latin for “rising sun” – “oriens”. This perhaps made all the more sense in view of the fact that St Luke used the same Greek word, anatole, in reporting Zechariah’s prophecy at the birth of his son, John the Baptist: “the loving-kindness of the heart of our God, who visits us like the rising sun from on high.” “Oriens” was the more fitting translation for St Luke’s text, and thereby the antiphon reflects its roots in the prophecies of both the Old Testament Zechariah and the New Testament Zechariah.
The phrase “Splendour of eternal light” points us back to the Book of Wisdom, and indeed to the first of the antiphons. This title is used to describe Wisdom herself, in 7:26. Whilst “eternal light” refers to the omnipotence of God (i.e. the Father), the emanating splendour of Wisdom has been understood as a reference to the Son since the earliest Christian times.
In keeping with the theme of significant days, “sun of justice” is found in Malachi’s prophecy of the Great Day of the Lord, in chapter 4. It will rise “with healing in its wings” for the righteous. Although the phrase is not found again in the Bible, a third century AD text, referring to Christ in relation to the “sun of justice”, helped to cement the tradition of the Lord’s Birth as being around the winter solstice.
The second half of this antiphon again draws in the theme of shadow and darkness, which awaits to be dispelled by the light. “Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” is also a phrase used by the New Testament Zechariah at the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:79). In his turn, Zechariah is undoubtedly borrowing from one of Isaiah’s great prophecies (Is 9:2), in which “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…”
The antiphon thus unites our prayers to those of our ancestors in asking the Lord to fulfil this prophecy and to save us from the shadow of darkness.
The penultimate antiphon expresses a very Christocentric reading of the Old Testament. Unlike the previous antiphons, none of the Old Testament texts to which it refers are essentially Messianic prophecies.
The English translation loses some of the references however. The Latin antiphon translates more literally as, “O King of the people, and [who is] desired by them”. “King of the people” is drawn from Jeremiah’s speech, in which he contrasts Israel’s true God with the pagan idols ( Jer 10:7). The application of this title to Christ the Son seems to be original to the antiphon’s author.
The people’s desire, as expressed here, has also been subjected to some reinterpretation. The text refers to Haggai’s prophecy (2:7) where, in the Hebrew text, the prophet speaks of that which is desirable or precious flowing in. The English, and other vernacular translations, translate this to refer to “treasure” or similar. But St Jerome, in his Latin translation, instead personifies the desirable or precious object, giving it a Messianic interpretation. And so the antiphon interprets the Promised One, Israel’s own God in human form, as the true desire of humanity.
The universal sense of this desire is reinforced by the “cornerstone which makes all one”. St Paul, in Ephesians 2:20, refers to Christ as the cornerstone on which the Church is built. In turn, he draws this expression from Isaiah 28:16, which speaks of a stone at the foundations of Sion. However, the Latin antiphon then quotes Ephesians 2:14,, which refers to making both one (rather than all). St Paul is here referring to the “pagans and Jews”, who are brought together as one in Christ.
The antiphon concludes by underlining, again, that universality of both pagans and Jews (i.e. of all humanity) by reference to their common Creator. The making of man from clay refers to Genesis 2:7. It should not surprise us that the antiphon accredits this act of creation to the Second Person of the Trinity. St John’s Gospel reminds us that “all things were made through Him”, and several Fathers of the Church (particularly Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus) speak of the role of the Son, and indeed the Holy Spirit, in creation.
Thus, immediately prior to the imminent manifestation of the Christ-Child, this antiphon reminds us of the splendour and power that human form will veil in the Christmas mystery.
The final antiphon condenses the glory and might of the Lord, as announced by the previous antiphons, into the immanence of the human form. Emmanuel is the name given in prophecy by Isaiah to King Ahaz to describe the promised Messiah (Is 7:14). Meaning “God is with us,” it serves as a title that aptly describes the person of Jesus.
The references to “king” and “judge”, as well as the final invocation, “O come and save us”, are also drawn from one of Isaiah’s prophecies (33:22), which has as its theme the deliverance of Israel from its foes into the land of the King. The final “Lord our God” of the antiphon also emerges from a similar theme: it appears to refer to Isaiah 37:20, in which the prophet Ezekiel prays for deliverance from the siege of Jerusalem laid by the Assyrian King, Sennacherib, in 70BC.
So the meat of this antiphon expresses very succinctly a certain physical imagery of salvation, that of Israel and its earthly foes, whilst hinting at the hidden way – and thereby the real significance of salvation – in which God will save us.
This salvation is once again given its universal orientation by the phrase at the centre of the antiphon: “the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour.” Although the first part of this is a reference to the prophecy made by Jacob (who was renamed Israel) to his sons (Gn 49:10) regarding the Messiah who would emerge from Judah, the specific notion of a Saviour of all peoples is one that is more identifiable with the New Testament writings of St John and St Paul.
In this way, the final antiphon rounds off the three antiphons that form the acrostic for the word “ero” – “I will be”. The first four, which give “cras” (“tomorrow”), all referred explicitly to the Old Testament; whereas these latter three rely on the New Testament for their full meaning. As the 23rd December draws to a close and the Church waits expectantly for the birth of the Saviour at the next midnight, the last three antiphons have literally spelt out the immanent arrival of Christ, and drawn together the promises of the Old Testament with their fulfilment.
Director, The Christian Heritage Centre
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