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Some readers may find the title of this article, “O Antiphons”, intriguing. In case you are wondering, it has nothing to do with the German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum”!
From December 17 until the Christmas vigil, the prayers and readings for Mass prepare us more directly to celebrate Christ’s birth. An illustration of this is the praying of the O Antiphons during the seven days leading up to Christmas.
I will explain. The antiphons that are used as the Gospel Acclamations at Mass and said before and after the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on these days are called the O Antiphons because they all begin with the exclamation "O".
The antiphons were composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together texts from the Old Testament that prophesied the coming of the Messiah. They became very popular in the Middle Ages when it was the practice to ring the great bells of the church while the monastery choir sang the antiphon.
The O Antiphons progress chronologically, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It’s like a scriptural “countdown” to Christmas: as Christmas approaches the cry becomes more urgent. Each O Antiphon begins with an invocation of the expected Messiah, followed by praise of him under one of his particular titles. Each of them ends with a plea for the Messiah to come.
Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah. The seven titles are Wisdom, Ruler of Israel, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Emmanuel, King of all Nations and Radiant Dawn.
Come, Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: teach us to walk in the paths of knowledge!
Come, Leader of ancient Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
rescue us with your mighty power!
Come, Flower of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people:
save us without delay!
December 20thCome, Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal kingdom:
free the prisoners of darkness!
Come, Emmanuel, God’s presence among us, our King, our Judge:
save us, Lord our God!
December 22nd and 23rd
Come, King of all nations, source of your Church’s unity and faith:
save all people, your own creation!
Come, Radiant Dawn, splendour of eternal light, sun of justice:
shine on those lost in the darkness of death!
If these sound familiar to people who do not attend weekday Mass or Evening Prayer during Advent it is because the invocations are the basis of the Advent hymn "O come, O come Emmanuel". The verses of the hymn begin “O come” followed in order by the titles Emmanuel, Wisdom from on high, great Lord of might, Rod of Jesse’s stem, Key of David, Dayspring from on high, Desire of nations.
The images traditionally associated with the seven titles are: a triangle with open eye in the centre (Wisdom), a flame and stone tablets (Ruler of Israel), a flower with roots attached (Root of Jesse), a key (Key of David), a baby in a manger (Emmanuel), a crown (King of all Nations) and a rising sun (Radiant Dawn).