The O Antiphons as a Monastic Song


Beginning on December 17, as the final phase of preparation for Christmas many monasteries will chant the O Antiphons preceding the Magnificat during Vespers. Perhaps this monastery will have just a little better understanding of the scriptural origins and application to our way of life that can be found in doing lectio on the O Antiphons.

The O Antiphons express the Church’s renewed longing and great expectation for the Messiah, her startled wonderment at the fullness of grace about to come into the world. The theme of these antiphons is the majesty of the Savior, His wisdom, His faithfulness and sanctity, His justice and mercy, His covenant with the chosen people, who in their ingratitude broke faith with Him. Just like us who have entered into a monastic consecration, a unique covenant, we share the failure and unfaithfulness of our ancestors in the faith. The O Antiphons are concerned with His power and love as King and Redeemer of the world, His relation to every soul as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Indeed we sing about our need for a savior. We sing with humility about our need to be rescued from years of self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, years of trying to save ourselves from ourselves. Indeed, in this we are our own worst enemies. Perhaps in this final stage of Advent 2008 we will be humble enough to admit our need for a Savior, our need to be reborn as we celebrate another birthday of the Savior of mankind. (adapted from With Christ Through the Year by Bernard Strasser)

According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Benedictines arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one — Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for all through Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the O Antiphons not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but they also bring another Advent Season to a joyful conclusion.
(adapted from Father William Saunders)

The exact origin of the O Antiphons is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank recited these antiphons, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. Now, there’s an old custom worth reviving!

By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the O Antiphons was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the O Antiphons have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church. The liturgical importance of O Antiphons is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah. Also, each one refers to a prophecy from Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah.

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High and, reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence.

This antiphon, like many of the others to follow, is based on a composite of two Scripture texts:
Sirach 24:3, “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and like mist covered the earth”, and
Wisdom 8:1, “She reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well”.

Wisdom is here personified, present with God at the beginning of creation. This is a prefigurement of the Lord Jesus, the eternal Word of God, and the “logos” Saint John described in the opening of his gospel. Wisdom is the foundation of the fear of the Lord, of holiness, or right living: it is wisdom whom we bid to come and teach us prudence. The cry “Come” will be repeated again and again, insistent and hope-filled. Indeed, we are urgent in our Advent Prayer, “Maranatha”. This is the song we sing each day we linger in this world. So our entire Christian life has an Advent spirituality; this is especially true of monastic life as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord, our Lover, our Divine Spouse. We will not sing it in heaven—it is fulfilled in the fullness of the Kingdom. We need not sing our Advent Song then because his advent will be in the eternal now. ?
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

Isaiah 11:2-3 is another text referred to in this antiphon:
“And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord, He shall not judge according to the sight of the eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of the ears.”

It was in our confirmation that we first encountered this gift of the Holy Spirit and began to live with his gaze upon us. As our Holy Father, Saint Benedict teaches us in the Rule, the LORD beholds us each day and everywhere we find ourselves, He is already there!

Isaiah 28:29 is also echoed in our Advent prayer:
“This also is come forth from the Lord God of hosts, to make his counsel wonderful, and magnify justice.”

This wisdom is not just about theology or spirituality it is about justice and how to live out this justice in our world, more and more. So that through our faithful living in a monastic community the world will be a warmer and brighter place. Our light is from the Light of the World and the darkness of our present time in history does not put out the light of our lives.

O Sapientia
I cannot think unless I have been thought
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken
I cannot teach except as I am taught
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me
O Memory of time, reminding me
My Ground of Being, always grounding me
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law. Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us.

This antiphon comes from the dialogue of the LORD and Moses in which we find the LORD making clear his identity and that of Moses as well:
Exodus 3:2: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed”, and Exodus 6:6: “Therefore say to the Israelites: I am Yahweh. I will free you from the enforced labor of the Egyptians and will deliver you from their slavery. I will rescue you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment”.

“Adonai” is Hebrew for “my Lord”, and was substituted by devout Jews for the name “YHWH”, out of reverence. Our Pope has instructed us to recover this ancient reverence for the unspeakable Name of the LORD. We are no longer to use it in singing or in translating the Scriptures. With this second antiphon we progress from creation to the familiar story of God manifesting himself by name to Moses and giving his law to Israel as their way of life. We are also reminded of the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage under pharaoh – a foreshadowing of our own redemption from sin. The image of God’s arm outstretched in power to save his chosen people also brings to mind the later scene of Jesus with his arms outstretched for us on the cross. These two images dominate the front wall of our monastic refectory. Behind the Abbot’s Table is a Crucifix in front of a mural of the LORD giving the commandments to Moses on the Holy Mountain. Our monastic life is governed by these same Ten Words given to the great prophet Moses and by the seventy-two chapters of the Rule given to our holy father Saint Benedict. We cannot live this monastic covenant without the revelation and wisdom of the Word in Scripture and in the Holy Rule. Everything we do in the Refectory and throughout the day is done under the guidance of the Lord our God, The One Who First Loved Us. ?
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

Isaiah 11:4-5 speaks an advent word to us:
“But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity the meek of the earth: and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. And justice shall be the girdle of his loins: and faith the girdle of his reins.”
Indeed, the rod of his mouth has struck the earth and the breath of his lips has slain the wicked. Our earth has been struck with the wood of the cross, and now we hear his voice in the Reproaches of Good Friday: “My people how have I offended you? What more could I have done for you? Tell me!” Indeed, the breath of his lips has slain the wicked. It is the Holy Spirit who has come forth to slay our only true enemy: sin and vice. We rejoice in his overwhelming power to save us from our own failure and weakness.

Isaiah 33:22 continues to instruct our Advent hearts:
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king” and there is no other!
Saint Benedict is our Father in Christ, so he is our new lawgiver. He takes the severity of monastic life at his time and makes it live able and loveable. In his wisdom Saint Benedict writes let us not make a rule too easy for the strong or too difficult for the weak. Thank God for such moderation and such compassion; this has enabled the Rule of Our Holy Father Saint Benedict to not only survive, but to thrive throughout the centuries.

O Adonai
Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue
Unseeable, you gave yourself away,
The Adonai, the Tetragramaton
Grew by a wayside in the light of day.
O you who dared to be a tribal God,
O own a language, people and a place,
Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,
If so you might be met with face to face,
Come to us here, who would not find you there,
Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,
Who heard no more than thunder in the air,
Who marked the mere events and not the myth.
Touch the bare branches of our unbelief
And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

O Root of Jesse, you stand as a sign for the peoples; before you kings shall keep silence and to you all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay.

This antiphon adapts the prophecy of Isaiah about the Suffering Servant of the LORD: Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:2: “See, my servant shall prosper…So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless. …He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot”.

Isaiah prophesied a restoration of David’s throne – a new branch budding out ?of the old root. Christ Our God is the root of Jesse in a two-fold sense: in his humanity he is the descendant of King David, who was the youngest son of Jesse, and he inherited the royal throne. This king was a man after God’s own heart and in his Psalms he prays for he universal reign of the LORD to begin. He wants the goodness and mercy of our God to rule over every human heart. The angel foretold to Mary, “The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will be without end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Our monastic hearts more and more urgently cry out for God’s reign to extend over all humanity: “Come, save us, and do not delay”. No one else can extend the reign of God! Indeed, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell as one. Indeed, it is in the mystery of monastic fellowship that the mystery of human unity is glimpsed. Our lives and our communities provide a sign of hope for all mankind. In our world of insult before you are insulted, in a world of pre-emptive strikes, we so seldom even dream of the promise of our Advent Prayer: “Maranatha!” ? ?
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

? ?

Isaiah 11:1
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.”
This wonder we behold with eyes of faith we gaze upon the Nativity. Everywhere we look in every room of this monastery we behold the flower rising up out of the ancestor of the Lord Jesus. What exactly do we behold? Do we see just another foreign nativity scene? Do we have the eyes of wonder, the eyes of a child, to see what prophets and kings longed to see but saw not? Do we hear the cries of the baby Christ, the infant God, who chooses to limit himself to our words and our pre-linguistic cries for help? Indeed, the Lord Jesus is helpless; he is dependent upon the Virgin Mother and her Husband Joseph. They give him what every human being needs in order to love himself, the unconditional love of parents for a baby, of adults for a helpless child. The Eternal Origin of Love receives human love so that he might love himself and all of us who cannot survive or grow up in stability and peace without the steady and regular experience of unconditional love. This is the love we so feebly strive to share with each other in our pursuit of perfect charity according to a monastic manner of life. In Christ we are strengthened to love as the Lord Jesus has loved us. He cannot love us more, and he will not love us less. He loves us without hesitation and without regret. Such is the blazing love we are called to have for one another in our monastic community.

Isaiah 11:10 gazes into the future glory of God’s plan:
“In that day the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech, and his sepulcher shall be glorious.”
We are to become the ensign of the people. Indeed our life of charity in the monastery is a bright sign of what human community can be for everyone who is grafted to the root of Jesse. The Holy Rule commands us to receive every guest as Christ. Everyone who comes to our monastery for retreat and as a volunteer is to be treated as Christ. We are to make them feel so at home that they discover the mystery of the Lord dwelling here among us and deep within their hearts. This is the reason people keep coming here for retreat, and this is the reason they will keep coming back to participate in our mission and ministry as a monastery.

Micah 5:1 adds his voice to our Advent reflection when he writes:
“Now shalt thou be laid waste, O daughter of the robber: they have laid siege against us, with a rod shall they strike the cheek of the judge of Israel.” Indeed our preparation for the Lord’s coming is a preparation for his suffering, death, and resurrection. The Judge of Israel is stuck again and again; he suffers the pain of rejection and execution. This suffering he offers as a perfect sacrifice of praise. As Saint John proclaims, no one takes his life from him. Indeed, Christ our true judge and savior offers his suffering and death for us. In the paschal mystery we learn how to unite our suffering to the sacrifice of the cross of Christ. This holocaust offers a pleasing aroma before the throne of Glory.

Romans 15:8-13 offers us Saint Paul’s Advent reflection:
“For I say that Christ Jesus was minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers. But that the Gentiles are to glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: Therefore will I confess to thee, O Lord, among the Gentiles, and will sing to thy name. And again he saith: Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again: Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and magnify him, all ye people. And again Isaiah saith: There shall be a root of Jesse; and he that shall rise up to rule the Gentiles, in him the Gentiles shall hope. Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing; that you may abound in hope, and in the power of the Holy Ghost.” Such is our prayer for this Advent Season. We are filled with hope and joy and peace in believing. Now, we abound with the spirit of this season and live in the power of the Holy Spirit.

O Radix
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.

O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no man closes; you close and no man opens. Come, and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Isaiah 22:22 we read, “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder. When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”
The Lord Jesus, our Advent King, has offered himself as the door that no one can close. Through him we walk in the darkness of Advent into the glory of Christmas. Through Christ, the Father’s open door we cross over to a new life filled with the bright glory of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Revelation 3:7 we hear the good news, “To the presiding spirit of the church in Philadelphia write this: ‘The holy One, the true, who wields David’s key, who opens and no one can close, who closes and no one can open'”.
Christ is also the key of David. He is the only key that enables us to pass through the gates of our heavenly home. With this key we have the power to pass from darkness into light, from sadness into joy, from sin into holiness. Such is the life of those who strive to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.

Isaiah 42:6-7 reveals to us that our gift of grace and glory is not just for ourselves, “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon those who live in darkness”.
We are transformed so that we can become those who lead others who are blind. We are summoned to share in the messianic mission of the Christ bringing prisoners our of confinement and releasing those who live in darkness.

The key and scepter are traditional symbols of kingly power and authority. Christ, the anointed one, is the heir of David and possessor of the kingdom. Jesus himself also made use of this symbol, showing the prophetic relationship of the earthly kingdom of David to the kingdom of God. All power and authority was given to him after the resurrection, and he entrusted this power to “bind and to loose” to Peter and the ministers of his church. In the closing petition we look to Jesus to unlock the fetters of sin that keep us tightly chained. It is he who frees us from our captivity. We recall the deliverance proclaimed by the psalmist of old: “they dwelt in darkness and gloom, bondsmen in want and in chains, and he led them forth from darkness and gloom and broke their bonds asunder” (Psalm 107: 10, 14).
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

Isaiah 9:6 continues to sharpen our Advent dreaming,
“For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace.”
The only sovereign is this child whom we celebrate at Christmas. His power transforms our weakness into strength. In Christ we can accomplish the vows we dared to profess in our monastic consecration.

O Clavis
Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard.
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free

O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Isaiah 9:1 enables us to rejoice with and for all who join us in celebrating the birth of the Savior, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone”.

Malachi 3:20 reveals that the One who is to come will be both our judge and our savior, “For you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays”.

2 Peter 1:19 helps us to keep the focus on his coming, “Keep your attention closely fixed on it, as you would on a lamp shining in a dark place, until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your heart”.

This title is variously translated “morning star”, “Dayspring”, “rising sun”, “radiant dawn”, “orient”. All beautifully express the idea of light shattering the darkness of night, of sin and death, of sickness and despair, with its brightness bringing healing and warmth to cold hearts. Indeed, we who could easily become cold and distant from love have received the “living flame of love”. We have been rescued from our self-centered over concern for our own perfection and now we light up and warm up the lives of all in our monastery. We no longer live for ourselves but for him who has first loved us. Jesus is indeed the true light, the radiance of his Father’s splendor. In Morning Prayer we make this petition daily in the Benedictus, joining in the words of Zechariah: “He, the Dayspring, shall visit us in his mercy to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79).
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

O Oriens
Paradiso XXX; 61
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”

O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, you are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save man whom you fashioned out of clay.


Isaiah 28:16 the prophet beholds the saving power of our God, “Therefore, thus says the Lord God: See, I am laying a stone in Zion, a stone that has been tested, a precious cornerstone as a sure foundation”.
In Ephesians 2:14 Saint Paul reveal the wonder of Christ who breaks down all division among us, “He it is who is our peace, and who made the two of us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart”.

The earlier antiphons have already alluded to the Messiah coming not only to Israel but to convert the gentile nations and redeem them for his own. Now this sixth antiphon clearly addresses the savior as the king of the gentiles (Jer.10:7) and the Desired One of the nations. The Messiah is the cornerstone on whom our spiritual foundations are laid, but on whom unbelievers stumble (Matt. 21:42). This cornerstone unites and binds Jew and gentile into one, making peace between them.

The plea is that God save all humanity, all his creation that he formed from the dust of the earth (Gen.2:7). We yearn for him once again to breathe the breath of his new life into us. This new breath is nothing less than the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of God breathes over the chaos of our hearts and brings forth the true beauty and love of human life. This abundant life is the deepest desire of every human heart, even of those who deny the meaning of Christmas. Indeed, the so-called Christmas Wars only reveals that the struggle between the light and darkness is a part of our own history. We already know the ultimate victory of Christ, the Light of the World. So we have no fear. Every effort we make to bring this good news into the culture of death, every effort to share the joy of Christ Advent is worth the energy and love we pour out.
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

Isaiah 9:7 reminds us that these sacrificial efforts are energized by the Lord who comes, “His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace: he shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom; to establish it and strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and for ever: the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

Isaiah 2:4 places our meager efforts in the context of the world wide struggle for justice and peace, “And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war.”

O Rex Gentium
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the nations and their ?Savior. Come and save us, O Lord our God.


Isaiah 7:14, gives us a glimpse of the divine plan, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel”.
Isaiah 33:22, reminds us that the One who Comes is the One who Dwells with us an among us, “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic. Yes, the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save ?us”.

With this last antiphon our expectation finds joy now in the certainty of fulfillment. We call Jesus by one of the most personal and intimate of his titles, Emmanuel, God-with-us. We recall that in his birth from the Virgin Mary God takes on our very flesh and human nature: God coming nearer to us than we could have ever imagined! Yet he is also to be exalted above us as our king, the lawgiver and judge, the one whom we honor and obey. And he is our savior, long expected by all creation. The final cry rises from us urgent in our need for daily salvation and forgiveness of our sins, and confident that our God will not withhold himself from us. Indeed, this God Who Comes takes on our humanity so that we can take on his divinity. This is the true dignity of our human nature and the great fulfillment of our deepest longing for union with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Saint John of the Cross teaches us, “we become what we love.” We love Emmanuel; we love God With Us. Christ our Emmanuel is not just the friend of sinners he is the Sinless One who alone can take away our sins and give us a new humanity. As a new creation in Christ we no longer define ourselves by sin, we have begun to see ourselves as God sees us, bright and beautiful in his grace and glory. Christ is divine by nature, and we are divine by participation in his divine nature. By his grace we are born again, born from on high, reborn in his own image and likeness. Such is the bold and boundless joy of our Advent 2008 and our next celebration of Christmas.
(Quoted and adapted from Jeanne Kun)

? ? ?

O Emmanuel
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.

Come to us, Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,

O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.