The Advent O Antiphons

stainedGlassHorizSmallFollowing is the text of a lesson I taught at Apostles Anglican Church on Sunday, 11 December 2016.  It is not intended to be read straight through, but rather to be used day-by-day from 17 December through 23 December as a meditation on the One who came and is to come.

The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent (Thomas Cranmer)

Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our heart, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

 O Antiphons:     An Advent Devotion

When psalms and canticles are said, sung, or chanted in worship they are often preceded by a short refrain that often expresses the theme of the liturgical season; this refrain is called an antiphon.  For example, in Morning Prayer, the Invitatory Psalm (often the Venite or Jubilate) has a range of seasonal antiphons including:

In Advent
Our King and Savior now draws near:  Come let us adore him.

On the Twelve Days of Christmas
Alleluia.  To us a child is born:  Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

From the Epiphany through the Baptism of Christ, and on the Feasts of the Transfiguration and Holy Cross
The Lord has shown forth his glory:  Come let us adore him.

In Lent
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:  Come let us adore him.

From Easter Day until the Ascension
Alleluia.  The Lord is risen indeed:  Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

The typical order of the antiphon and psalm/canticle resembles a sandwich with the antiphon as bread and the psalm/canticle and Gloria as the meat and cheese:

Antiphon
Psalm/Canticle
Gloria
Antiphon

If the psalm is chanted, the antiphon often has a more varied and complex tune than the psalm tone.

Advent has a special series of antiphons that accompany the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) at Evening Prayer, from 17-23 December – a different antiphon each day.  Because each of these antiphons begins with the interjection, O, they are collectively known as the O Antiphons (or the Great O Antiphons).  It is a highlight of the year when these are sung in churches and monastic communities worldwide.

The O Antiphons are ancient, originating no later – and probably earlier – than the 8th century.  They are a product of the Western church, written in Latin.  But the real origin of the Antiphons lies in Scripture; they are filled with Biblical images and allusions that focus on various names and characteristics of Christ, the one who came and is to come.  Each of the O Antiphons is a prayer; like the closing prayer of Revelation, each is addressed to Christ and, in various ways, contains the plea, Come, Lord Jesus.

The O Antiphons offer a wonderful way to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s first advent and to stir our longing and hope for his second advent.  As an Advent devotion, you might find it helpful to pray the Magnificat each day, framed by the appropriate O Antiphon for the day.  Simply say the antiphon, then pray the Magnificat, then say the antiphon again.  Since the Magnificat is associated with Evening Prayer, you might do this before or after the evening meal, or just prior to bed, though any time will do.  You might also choose to sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  Each of its verses is a metrical version of one of the O Antiphons.  In the Hymnal 1982 the verses are labeled by day – 17 December through 23 December – to correspond to the appropriate O Antiphon.  However you might choose to use these Antiphons, I believe they will enrich your Advent reflections upon the One who came and is to come.

In a moment, we will consider the text of each antiphon.  But, before that, I would like you to hear the first of the O Antiphons with the Magnificat.  I will be using the version of both from the service music for The New English Hymnal.  Simply click on the link below.

O Wisdom

O Sapientia (O Wisdom) and Magnificat

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
and reachest from one end to another,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

My soul doth magnify the Lord;
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded:
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from hence-forth:
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him:
throughout all generations.
He hath put down the might from their seat;
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He, remembering his mercy,
hath holpen his servant Israel:
as he promised to our forefathers Abraham and his seed forever.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end.  Amen.

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
and reachest from one end to another,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

 O Antiphons

With this background, and having heard how the Antiphons and the Magnificat “work together,” we can now consider the texts of the individual antiphons.  This version of the Antiphons and Magnificat are in more contemporary language.

O Sapientia (O Wisdom): 17 December

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

The wisdom literature in Scripture personifies Wisdom as the creative power of God; it was through and by Wisdom that God created and ordered all things.  Wisdom is not an abstract idea or principle, but a person.  The apocryphal book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the canonical book of Proverbs offer clear examples of this personification:

All wisdom is from the Lord,
and with him it remains forever.
The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity—who can count them?
The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom—who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity (Sirach 1:1-4).

22 “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
26 before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man (Proverbs 8:22-31).

Question

Consider this Second Temple description of Wisdom as an antetype.  With what, or with whom, would we identify its fulfillment?

With the advent of Christ, the Church recognized him as the personification of Wisdom, the one for whom Wisdom was a symbol.  Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the one by whom and through whom all things are created and ordered, the very source and substance of wisdom.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:15-20).

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:20-24).

O Sapientia calls on Christ, the wisdom of God, to teach us the way of prudence (wisdom) – not the wisdom of the philosophers and not the wisdom of the world, but of the ancient wisdom of God.

O Adonai (O LORD):  18 December

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Adonai is the Hebrew term for LORD.  When you see Lord written in all capital letters – LORD – in our Old Testament translations it is a rendering of Adonai.  But, interestingly, Adonai is not what would be found in the Hebrew text.  Instead, you would find the personal name of God – YHWH – which we sometimes write and say as either Yahweh or Jehovah and translate as I Am.  To the Jews, the personal name of God was/is so holy, so revered that it must not be uttered aloud or written.  So, when YHWH is intended in the text, Adonai is substituted.

This Antiphon identifies Jesus with the most holy name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God who revealed himself and his name to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, who liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, and who gave the Law on Sinai.  And it calls on Jesus to come and redeem his people – us – with an outstretched arm just as Adonai redeemed the Israelites from Egypt.

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospel of John – a confrontation between the Jewish authorities and Jesus – Jesus claims for himself the personal name of God, claims to be Adonai, YHWH:

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:56-59).

Jesus, I Am, YHWH, Adonai:  this is the one to whom we sing in the O Antiphon:

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Question

From what do we need to be redeemed?  Of course, there is a theological answer, but there is also a personal answer.  From what do you need to be redeemed, right now, in this moment?  Guilt?  Fear?  Sin?  Anger?  This Antiphon calls us to examine our lives and perhaps to pray for Adonai to continue his work of redemption in us.

O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse):  19 December

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples:
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Questions

Do you remember David’s plan to build a temple for the Lord?

  1. How did that work out?
  2. What did God promise David?

In 2 Samuel 7, God refuses to let David build a house for God, a temple.  Instead, God promises to build a house for David, son of Jesse – a dynasty to rule Israel forever.  But, things did not go smoothly in the kingdom.  David sinned with Bathsheba and God promised discord in David’s family from that time forward and a division of the kingdom.  David’s son Solomon expanded the borders and material wealth of the kingdom, but also initiated a decline in true worship by introducing the foreign gods of his foreign wives.  His foolish son, Rehoboam, refused to listen to wise and mature counselor and precipitated civil war that divided the kingdom, north and south.  There was still a king of the house of Jesse on the throne, but now ruling only over two tribes, collectively known as Judah.  Within 350 years Judah had become so politically corrupt, so morally bankrupt, so far from God that it fell to the Babylonians.  The house of David seems to have crumbled; the dynastic tree of David cut down to just a stump.  Listen to how this selection from Psalm 89 describes the situation:

20 I have found David, my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him,
21 so that my hand shall be established with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
22 The enemy shall not outwit him;
the wicked shall not humble him.
23 I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him,
and in my name shall his horn be exalted.
25 I will set his hand on the sea
and his right hand on the rivers.
26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
27 And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
28 My steadfast love I will keep for him forever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
29 I will establish his offspring forever
and his throne as the days of the heavens.
30 If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
31 if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes,
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
or be false to my faithfulness.
34 I will not violate my covenant
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
37 Like the moon it shall be established forever,
a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah

38 But now you have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have breached all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 You have also turned back the edge of his sword,
and you have not made him stand in battle.
44 You have made his splendor to cease
and cast his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame. Selah

46 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire (Ps 89:20-46)?

Is all hope lost?  Has God forsaken his covenant with David of the house of Jesse?  No.  Let’s jump ahead to the end of the story, to Revelation 5:1-5:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:1-5).

The Root of David – Radix Jesse – is none other than Jesus Christ, who died, who rose again, and who reigns forever, an everlasting King from the house of David, from the root of Jesse.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples:
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Questions

God seems to delight in bringing forth life and growth from “dead” stumps, in giving new hope when all seems lost.

  1. Can you think of some Biblical examples of this?
  2. Where has God done this in your life?  Where do you need him to do it now?

Perhaps this O Antiphon is a good prayer for anyone struggling with hopelessness.  The Root of Jesse stands as a sign that God rescues his people, that resurrection follows crucifixion.

O Clavis David (O Key of David):  20 December

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel:
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in the shadow of death.

Key of David, Scepter of the House of Israel, the one who shuts and no one can open and who opens and no one can shut:  this imagery begins in Genesis and develops throughout Scripture.  In his final blessing to his sons, Jacob says to Judah:

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:8-10).

Judah holds the scepter, the ruler’s staff over all sons of Jacob – over all Israel.  But, there is a hint that Judah’s rule goes beyond Israel to include the obedience of “the peoples,” i.e., of the nations.

And, then, in Revelation 1:12-18 we read:

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1:12-18).

The first and the last, the one who died and is alive forevermore, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, is the one who holds the Scepter of the House of Israel, for he reigns over all things.  He holds the Key of  David because he and he alone has the power to open and shut Death and Hades, and no one can oppose his will.  It is this one, Jesus, to whom we pray:

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel:
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in the shadow of death.

Questions

  1. Do you remember any mention of a key or keys in the Gospels?  See Matthew 16:13-19.
  2. How might this relate to the Antiphon?  Can we see the Church – and perhaps even ourselves – in this Antiphon?

 O Oriens (O Dayspring/Morning Star/Dawn):  21 December

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Oriens – morning star or dawn.  We cannot hear this without thinking of the Canticle of Zechariah in Morning Prayer, so appropriate for Advent.  Let it be our commentary on this Antiphon.  Notice the reference to the breaking dawn from on high as we reach the conclusion of the canticle.

16   The Song of Zechariah     Benedictus Dominus Deus
  Luke 1: 68‑79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

In his own way, Zechariah sings the O Antiphons:

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Rex Gentium (O King of the Gentiles/Nations):  22 December

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

Rex Gentium – King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles:  this characteristic of the identity and mission of Christ was central to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and of his own vocation.  Here is how he describes it in Ephesians 2:11-22:

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11-22).

For Paul, this is absolutely crucial and non-negotiable.  If the Gentiles are not included under the Lordship of Christ (Rex Gentium), if they do not form one, single body with the Jews, then the Gospel is emptied of its power.

So it is, around the throne in the Revelation of John we hear this song to the King of the Nations – A Song to the Lamb (BCP 1979, p. 93):

Splendor and honor and kingly power
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is,
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain,
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation,
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.
And so, to him who sits upon the throne,
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor,
for ever and for evermore (Rev 4:11; 5:9-10, 13).

Christ is Rex Gentium, the king of all nations:  every family, language, people and nation – a single kingdom of priests.

And so we pray:
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
 
O Emmanuel (O God With Us):  23 December

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

We come at last to the most familiar of the names of Christ associated with Advent, Emmanuel – God with us.  Isaiah prophesies his coming:

17Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Is 7:17).

Matthew is clear that this prophecy and this name apply to Jesus of Nazareth, even before his birth:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

So, when we pray through the O Antiphons, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we seek the return of God-with-us:  not that he is now absent from us, but we seek him in his fullness.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Magnificat

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

Closing

These O Antiphons begin on 17 December and are sung the week prior to Christmas as a final act of preparation for the first advent of Christ.  There is a secret hidden in the arrangement of the Antiphons.  If we take the first letter of each of the Antiphons we have the sequence SARCORE.  Now, arrange this backwards with one strategic space inserted and we have ERO CRAS, Latin for Tomorrow I Come.  The O Antiphons begin with hope and plea:  Come, Lord Jesus.  They end with promise:  Tomorrow I come.  They give the church a beautiful way to draw Advent to a close and to lead us into Christmas worship of the One who came and is to come.

Photo:  John Roop, Window at Monastery of the Holy Spirit

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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