What are the ‘O Antiphons?
And why give time to singing them in our zoom practices.? The seven O Antiphons are so called because each one begins with a title of the Messiah preceded by the exclamation ‘O’ expressing longing and gladness. Commencing on 17th December they are sung or recited before and after the chanting of Our Lady’s Magnificat during the evening office of Vespers on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve so commencing on the 17th December and concluding on 23rd. They are to be found in the Roman Breviary and with the melodies in the Monastic Antiphonale. They are all sung to the same mode II melody. Once we learn the first one, it will be relatively easy to sing the rest. Conway considers that both text and melody are by the same author.
They are an important part of Advent for monastics lending each day a particular character, building up a sense of joyful anticipation, distinguishing the second part of Advent from the first and marking our liturgy with a particular solemnity. Traditionally often each antiphon has been assigned to be intoned by a different office holder in the community sometimes one associated with his or her duties. For example the cellarer might be assigned ‘O Clavis David’. In the middle ages these antiphons became very popular. In some monasteries the largest bell would be rung throughout the singing of the antiphon and Magnificat, allowing the local community to share in the sense of occasion.
How are the Great Os structured?
Each is constructed on a similar plan: Following the invocation of the Messiah using an Old Testament inspired title, this thought is amplified with the statement of an attribute of the Messiah associated with the title. Finally there is the appeal each time beginning with the word ‘Come’ and then referring to the initial invocation. Although dismissed by some as accidental, wonderfully, the antiphons contain a hidden response to their plea: An acrostic results when the first letters of each antiphon are read in reverse order. They spell ‘ero cras’ meaning ‘tomorrow I will be with you’.
What do the texts mean and where do they come from?
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom who didst proceed out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end unto end, and mightily and sweetly ordering all things,
come and teach us the way of wisdom.
See Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 24.3. The Discourse on Wisdom. Wisdom speaks her own praises, ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.. Alone I encircled the vault of heaven.
See Wisdom 7. 24
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti , et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, leader of Israel’s house, who didst appear unto Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and didst give him the law on Sinai,
come, and redeem us with stretched-out arm.
See Exodus 6.13 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and ordered them both to go to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and to bring the sons of Israel out of he land of Egypt. [‘Adonai’ is from the Hebrew and Canaanite ‘adon’ often translated as Lord. A name for God].
See Exodus 3.2, 19. ff
O radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who standest as a sign of the peoples, before whom kings shall be silent, unto whom the Gentiles shall pray,
come, and deliver us, tarry no more.
See Isaiah 11.10 ‘That day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations and it’s home will be glorious.’ [Jesse was the father of king David. The Blessed Virgin was of the house of David, hence she was a root of Jesse and her son was by pre-eminence the Root of Jesse].
See Romans 15. 12, Isaiah 52. 15
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 tenbris et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre of Israel’s house; who openest, and no man shuttest, shuttest, and no man openeth;
come thou and take from the prisonhouse him that is bound, that sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.
See Isaiah 22.22 ‘I place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; should he open , no one shall close, should he close, no one shall open.
See also Revelation 3.7 ‘Write to the angel of the church in Philadelphia and say, “Here is the message of the holy and faithful one who has the key of David, etc” as above.
See also Jeremiah 51. 19, Isaiah 42. 7, Luke 1. 79, Isaiah 9.2
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.
O Dayspring, brightness of everlasting light, sun of justice,
come thou and lighten the people that sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.
See Isaiah 9.1 ‘..The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light ; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.
See Malachi 4.2. ...‘the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.
See also John 8.12, Hebrews 1.3.
O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis untraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King and desire of the nations, cornerstone who makest twain to be one, come thou and save man whom thou didst fashion from slime (earth, clay).
See Isaiah 9.5 ‘ For there is a child born to us, a son given us; and dominion is laid upon his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
See Isaiah 2.4 , ‘He will wield authority over many nations and adjudicate between many peoples; these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation shall not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war.’
See also Genesis 2.7, Haggai 2.8, Romans 15.12, Ephesians 2.14.
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gntium, et Salvator earum: veni,
ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, expectation and Saviour of the nations,
come thou and save us, O Lord our God.
See Isaiah 7. 14 The Lord himself, therefore will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel. [which means God with us].
See also Matthew 1.23.
Who wrote the O Antiphons?
It is not clear by whom or where these antiphons were written. They are at the very latest from 8th century. The wikipedia article on them states that Boethius (480-524) makes slight reference to them but without giving a citation as far as I could see. These terms were applied to Christ very early on. For instance Pope Damasus (366 - 384) uses four of them in his ‘Carmen de Cognomentis Salvatoris’. Sherr tells us that St Ambrose (340-397) applies the title ‘Clavis David’ to Christ, that the antiphons were known to Alcuin (735-804) and that the English poet Cynewulf paraphrases them in a poem written before 800.
Are there similar antiphons?
The acrostic and their Messianic nature give firm evidence of the unity, original order and common origin the seven ‘O Antiphons’. Other ones have appeared; among them are; ‘O virgo virginum’ [found in the Sarum, York and Hereford breviaries], ‘O Gabriel’, ‘O Thoma didyme’ [his feast was 21st December, now 3rd July], O rex pacifice’ and ‘O Hierusalem’.
Where else do they occur?
In the current lectionary the O Antiphons are used as Alleluia Antiphons with the order somewhat rearranged as follows: 17th Sapientia, 18th Dux domus Israel, 19th Radix Jesse, 20th Emmanuel, 21st either Clavis David or Emmanuel. 22nd Radix Jesse or Rex Gentium. 23rd Rex Gentium. 24th Oriens. The Fourth Sunday of Advent year A Alleluia makes reference to Emmanuel the Immanuel text in Isaiah as cited in Matthew 1.23.
Alleluia verses ‘See, the king, the Lord of the world, will come. He will free us from the yoke of our bondage’, and ‘ The Lord is our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king and our saviour’, are offered among Alleluia’s for use on weekdays of Advent before 17th.
I could not find use made of them in the current Graduale.
We are familiar with the English Hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. This is a translation from the Latin by J.M. Neale of the eighteenth century hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel from a German hymnbook. This paraphrases five of the antiphons (author unknown). Numerous other more complete metrical versions have been published over time but are less in use. The O Antiphons have inspired few polyphonic settings. One such is a late 17th century work by Marc-Antoine Charpentier for three voices and basso continuo.
Ampleforth Abbey, Benedictine Hours, (Ampleforth, York 1934).
Conway G. E., O Antiphons, New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 10 (McGraw-Hill New York 1967)
Sherr Richard, O Antiphons, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Vol 18, (McMillan London 2001)