O what a time to rejoice, for the coming of the Lord is near! This brings to mind the famous “O Antiphons” that are celebrated every December 17-23rd during Evening Prayer (Vespers). On these days, each antiphon or stanza before the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) starts with an “O” and then proceeds with one of seven Messianic titles which are attached to the prophecies of Isaiah. These titles are fittingly announced with Mary and her Magnificat as she always, “Proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Through these “O Antiphons” she prepares us by showing us seven great things to celebrate about the coming of the Christ child, the promised Messiah.
The Church continued Mary’s proclamation of the greatness of the Lord through the O Antiphons. They have been around for years being mentioned by Boethius as early as the 4th century. They are now recognized by the famous tune “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” whose verses go through the seven antiphons and Messianic titles of the O Antiphons. So let’s briefly look at these seven titles, then look at them in light of the Antiphon within Evening Prayer, and finally go through things to celebrate about them.
The first title speaks of Wisdom (Sapientia). In the Antiphon it speaks of Wisdom which governs all of creation with a strong yet tender care. Isaiah, speaks of this spirit of Wisdom within the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2-3). So in this first day, we celebrate the Wisdom of God’s love which wanted to unite God and man for all eternity. In this Christ child, as Bl. John Paul II would remind us, we see “the human face of God and the divine face of man.” (Ecclesia in America #67)
The second O Antiphon speaks of the Lord (Adonai) which is asked to “stretch out [his] mighty hand to set us free.” Isaiah speaks of this mighty Lord who will judge and save us (Isaiah 33:22). So in this antiphon we celebrate the Holy name of Jesus whose name literally means God saves.
The third O Antiphon refers to Jesse’s stem (Radix Jesse) which has “been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings will stand silent in [his] presence; bow down in worship. Come and let nothing keep [him] from coming to our aid.” Isaiah speaks about the Messiah as a sign to the nations (Isaiah 11:10). In this antiphon we celebrate the fact that the shoot of Jesse, despite being cut down over and over through the ax of sin, remains triumphant as “the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness [is] to all generations” (Psalm 110:5). So in the root of David, we celebrate God’s fidelity.
The fourth O Antiphon mentions the key of David (Clavis David) which is “the royal Power of Israel controlling at [His] will the gate of Heaven: Come break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Isaiah points to the key of the House of David which when open, none shall shut” (Isaiah 22:22). In this, we can remember the key that opens the door to our hearts which focuses us on the words of our Lord, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Let us remember the key to our dreams are in the Lord who simply wants us to let Him in so He can help us.
The fifth O Antiphon tells of the Radiant Dawn (Oriens) which “shines on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” In this antiphon we celebrate the “key that will open the door to the light” (Isaiah 9:1) and consequently leads us out of darkness and “guide[s] our paths unto the way of peace”(Luke 1:79).
The sixth O Antiphon talks about the King of Nations (Rex Gentium) who is “the only joy of the every human heart.” Isaiah points to this joy who is a king and “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5). In this antiphon we celebrate that the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords has come from afar to bring us joy. Scripture tells us that this King will came “so that [his] joy may be within us and our joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
This brings us to the final O Antiphon which heralds Emmanuel (Emmanuel). This leads to a description, “A virgin shall have a child and he shall be known as Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). We ultimately celebrate Jesus as Emmanuel; that God is with us. And because He is with us, as Pope Benedict tells us:
We know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.
This is why, as a wise priest points out, we can see something extremely special by starting with the last title and taking the first letter of each O Antiphon. Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” The O Antiphons show us that Jesus comes and He comes to bring us something that will never pass away, the love of God. And because He brings the love of God, we can answer all of life’s questions and live in truth and freedom since “Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself” (Redemptoris Hominis#1).
So, this Advent, let us celebrate the O Antiphons by praying the Liturgy of the Hours, singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and even meditating on various parts of the Advent/Christmas story in Scripture as we go caroling. No matter how we celebrate these O Antiphons however; let us remember, “O” we have something to sing about…we are redeemed by the God who loves us! Come Lord Jesus!
For an Advent Talk by Gerard-Marie Anthony, download his talk: “Theology of the Body in Advent” found at: http://www.gmarieforg-o-d.com/advent.htm.