The Great O Antiphons
The ‘O Antiphons’ refer to the seven antiphons that are recited before the Magnificat during Evening Prayer in the Octave before Christmas, 17th to 23rd December. 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), these antiphons were recited by the Abbot and other monks in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. 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 importance of the ‘O Antiphons’ is twofold: each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.
Here are the antiphons, with just a sample of Isaiah’s related prophecies:
December 17th | O Sapientia
December 18th | O Adonai
December 19th O Radix Jesse
December 20th | O Clavis David
December 21st | O Oriens
December 22nd | O Rex Gentium
December 23rd | O Emmanuel
According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks 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 in 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 bring it to a joyful conclusion.