One of the traditions I look forward to most during the hope-filled Advent season is the singing of the “O antiphons.” These are special musical antiphons sung to introduce and conclude the Magnificat in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours each evening from December 17th through December 23rd. Each O antiphon is drawn from a passage or passages in the Bible, especially from the Book of Isaiah, referring to the coming of the Messiah.
The O antiphons all feature a classic title of Christ: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, and O Emmanuel. The first of these titles, O Sapientia, meaning “O Wisdom,” is drawn appropriately from the Book of Wisdom (8:1) and from Isaiah (11:2-3), and it honors Christ as the Lord of creation, “through whom all things were made,” as we profess in the Creed each Sunday. The second antiphon, O Adonai, is inspired by the words of the Book of Exodus, which relates how the Lord (Adonai means “Lord” in Hebrew) entrusted Moses with the Law on Sinai, prefiguring the Law of Christ which would come through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, and which would bring with it the gift of redemption.
Isaiah 11 was the muse for next O antiphon, O Radix Jesse, and it reminds us that from the “root of Jesse” not only would King David be descended, but the Son of David, Jesus Christ, would be descended according to the flesh (see Rom 1:3). This antiphon ends on a pleading yet hopeful note when we sing “come…and wait no longer!” The fourth O antiphon is O Clavis David—“O Key of David”—and it describes how, following in the footsteps of David, Christ is the only one who can definitely open and close the way to salvation.
O Oriens, “O Morning Star” (or literally, “O Eastern One”) is our next antiphon, sung on December 21st. It sings of the splendid light and beauty that radiates forth from Christ, the bearer of our salvation. December 21st is also the only day in the year when the Church prescribes a reading from the Song of Songs, an unfortunately little-read book of the Old Testament which echoes the praise of God in the terms of beauty and love that resound in O Oriens.
The sixth O antiphon is O Rex Gentium, which means “O King of the Peoples.” It finds its origins in a few passages from Isaiah, as well as in an obscure reference in the Book of Haggai, which ekes out two brief appearances over the entire three-year cycle of readings in the Lectionary for Mass. In a key passage, the prophet Haggai speaks the word of the Lord: “I will shake all the nations, so that the treasures of all the nations will come in. And I will fill this house with glory—says the Lord” (Hag 2:7). The Church has long understood the “treasures of the nations” to be the actual people of the nations coming to the Lord, not simply their gold and silver. Here we see the anticipation of the gentiles as well as the people of Israel coming to salvation through Christ.
Finally, the seventh O antiphon, O Emmanuel, falls on the fourth Sunday of Advent this year. As we wait the two remaining days until Christmas let us remember that Emmanuel means “God with us,” and let us be grateful that God so loves us that he became one with us through the incarnation and birth of his Son, the hope and the joy of all creation. “O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.”
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.