As we approach the octave before Christmas, there is a beautiful longstanding tradition in the Church of praying the “O Antiphons.” These short prayers help us more deeply prepare for the coming of our Lord and Savior.
The antiphons may be somewhat familiar to people because they are the inspiration for the well-known hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” These prayers have actually been a part of the Church’s liturgy for more than a thousand years. The origin of this tradition is not fully known but it has been in use liturgically since the eighth century. The composition of these prayers likely originated much earlier, however.
Traditionally the Church prays the “O Antiphons” from December 17 through December 23, in the Evening Prayer (Vespers) of the Liturgy of the Hours, before and after the Magnificat. Each of these prayers begins with the word “O” – thus the name – and highlights one of the prophetic titles given to the Messiah taken from the book of Isaiah.
There are seven O Antiphons: 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 Radiant Dawn), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. The order of these Messianic titles was also likely intentional. Looking at the first letter of the Latin words we have: SARCORE. Seen in reverse, we have “ERO CRAS,” which is the Latin phrase: “Tomorrow I shall come” (or literally “tomorrow I shall be”).
Meditating on these “O Antiphons” during the eight days prior to Christmas is a beautiful way to continue to prepare our hearts and minds individually while also joining with the universal Church in eager anticipation of the coming of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
God is Wisdom and we can glimpse a hint of this in the order and design of our world. His wisdom can be seen in everything, from the intricacies of how a caterpillar transforms to a wondrous butterfly to the grandeur of various landscapes that bring us delight. We can even see His wisdom in the complexities of the human person. We are composed of tiny cells that are incredible mini-machines programmed to grow, respond to their environment, and to reproduce. And each has specialized functions. There are also aspects of our human bodies that are incredibly sophisticated and not fully understood – such as the human eye and the human brain – that continue to baffle those in medicine.
Wisdom is also magnificently shown in God’s Providence. God has been protecting and governing us throughout human history, always leading us to himself. In his loving care, God never abandons us. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “He not only gives them [his creatures] being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end” (CCC 301).
Wisdom in the Catechism
The Catechism also reminds us of God and this wisdom when it says:
We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness: “For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” [Revelation 4:11]. Therefore the Psalmist exclaims: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all;” and “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made” [Psalm 104:24; 145:9]. (CCC 295)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
This antiphon is a reflection on God who is our Lord and our law-giver. But as ruler, God is not a tyrant or dictator. He is a loving Father who desires us to become perfect so we can be in communion with him for eternity. To help show us the way to life with him, God gives us laws which are reasonable and that have a purpose. They are ultimately prescriptions of conduct leading us to our promised beatitude (CCC 1950).
As the Catechism explains, God’s law “presupposes the rational order, established among creatures for their good and to serve their final end, by the power, wisdom and goodness of the Creator.” And it continues by saying that man, “as an animal endowed with reason, capable of understanding and discernment, he is to govern his conduct by using his freedom and reason, in obedience to the One who has entrusted everything to him” (CCC 1951).
God also moves us by grace without ever coercing us to obey. So his laws are to guide us to holiness and to friendship with God. But we can freely choose to reject God and turn away from his path.
God wants us to see his laws as what they are – blessings and not burdens. They can at times seem difficult because we have a fallen nature with a tendency to rebel. But with the help of God’s grace, we can submit our will to God’s and be transformed into saints.
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
This antiphon calls to mind the ancient patriarch Jesse, the father of King David. God foretold that it was from the line of Jesse that the Messiah would come. Being a descendant of David, the Messiah would rule as king, but Christ’s kingship and kingdom would be made to be everlasting. This Anointed One, coming from the line of Jesse, would be sent because of God’s love to bring salvation to humanity.
In the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, it is important to note that it says this Messiah would sprout from the stump of Jesse. Why is there reference to a stump? Because a stump is what remains when a tree has been cut down and, by all outward appearances, it appears lifeless. However, the coming of the Messiah will reveal Jesse’s stump is not dead. It will become evident with the birth of the Messiah that the line of David had continued to survive despite the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile and the suppression of Israelites by conquering enemies. This will demonstrate to the Chosen People that God never abandoned them. He remained at work in their lives even in the midst of their sufferings. The Messiah will be a new shoot that will blossom and bring forth new life to the entire world.
And this is one reason Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy. Writing primarily to a Jewish audience, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus is not only a descendant of Abraham but also a descendant of Jesse and David. Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah – the shoot sprouting forth. God truly does keep his promises.
And for us, knowing Jesus’ ancestry, we also become aware of his human family. These are real people who had trials and struggles. And among the members of Jesus’ family were not only those who were blameless in the law but also sinners. This reminds us that when God became man, he came into this world not in an isolated way but into a family like ours – an intimate example of God’s humility and deep love for us.
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
What is the significance of a key? Keys are used to unlock things.
Humanity was in a situation where all were prisoners in a world of darkness. For any chance to have access to God’s kingdom, we needed a special key to unlock it. But humanity did not possess such a key. The Messiah would be the key that would open the gates of God’s kingdom and make it possible for us to enter.
This reminds us that without Christ, sin is a reality that enslaves us. Sin separates us from God and, if it reigns in us, we will remain outside of God’s kingdom. But because God became man and, in love, suffered and died for our sins, He made it possible for us to have access to God’s kingdom. If we open our hearts to God’s grace, we can be freed from sin and enjoy the peace that results from allowing the life of the Spirit to reign in us.
December 21: O Oriens (O Radiant Dawn)
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice, come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death! [Isaiah 9:1-2]
The first words of this antiphon in Latin are “O Oriens.” This can be translated as O the East, O Morning Star, O Dayspring or O Radiant Dawn. This Latin word oriens is also the origin for English words such as ‘oriented.’
This antiphon reminds us that it is God who is the eternal light. It is only in him that we can be freed from darkness and death.
This antiphon exhorts us to ask ourselves: is my life oriented properly? Is God at the center of my life? To ignore God, reject him or push him to the periphery of our lives is to live in a disoriented way. Without God, we will not find true peace, happiness or joy.
Christ is the light of the world. He is shining brightly always and everywhere but we can block out this light. We can put up obstacles so that His life will not penetrate our hearts. But if we want to be people of light and escape from this land of gloom, we must repent and be converted. And as we are converted more deeply each day, we are then enabled – by God’s grace – to be instruments through which Christ’s light can shine onto others.
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of All Nations)
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church, come and save man, whom you formed from the dust! [Isaiah 9:6-7]
Jesus is the King of Kings, ruling over all creation with love, mercy, justice and truth. And not only does he rule, he is coming personally to save us. Maranatha!
But this antiphon also reminds us we are dust and to dust we shall return. Death is inevitable.
After our earthly lives have ended, we will stand before Christ the just and merciful Judge. Are we prepared for our judgment day? Do we live every day knowing that at any moment we could die and will then be held accountable for what we have done and what we have failed to do? This reminder is not meant to instill despair but to urge repentance and conversation.
Salvation was made possible by Jesus Christ. We do not deserve heaven and we cannot earn it, but we can open our hearts to God’s gift of grace and allow ourselves to be transformed. If we die with grace in our soul, enabled to love God, we will receive the gift of eternal life. But hell is also a real possibility. If we reject God and his grace and die unconverted, we will have freely chosen eternal separation from God.
December 23: O Emmanuel
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law, come to save us, Lord our God! [Isaiah 7:14]
The name “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” This antiphon reminds us of the incredible reality that our Supreme God and Creator truly did become man. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity – God the Son – became Incarnate because of His unconditional love for us and His desire to save us.
Though difficult to fathom, the truth is that the Ruler of the Universe, the Alpha and Omega, the eternal God, united Himself to a human nature and entered this world in the most humbling way: as a babe in swaddling clothes. God as man was then cared for by His mother Mary. He required diaper changes and had to learn to walk and talk just like we do.
God being with us, also allowed Himself to suffer as we do. At the end of his life, Jesus Christ freely accepted humiliation, the cruelest form of torture, abandonment by friends, the excruciating pain of crucifixion and death in order to redeem the world and bring salvation to us all. What an awesome reminder of the love God has for us and of how ever-grateful we should be for all God has done for us.
The Antiphons Help Us Prepare
During the octave before Christmas, we are called to meditate with the Church and proclaim with joyful anticipation: “O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Radiant Dawn, O King and O Emmanuel!” We then await the celebration of Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem.
At the same time, we eagerly prepare our hearts and minds daily for the End of Time when we will meet Christ when He comes again.