The Catholic Church has been singing the “O Antiphons” since about the 8th century. They were first composed as antiphons to accompany the singing of the Magnificat in Vespers of the Divine Office. They were composed for the last week of Advent, December 17th – 23rd.
They are a compact and beautiful theology that draws on biblical themes of the Old Testament. As such, they proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and hopes. They also express current longings rooted in those themes. And although the prophecies are fulfilled, they remain an ever-longing aspect of all human hearts.
In these antiphons, note the repeated use of both the expression “O” and the word “come.”
These antiphons are memorably and poetically reworked in the beautiful and well-known hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which is included at the end of this post.
What follows here is less a scholarly presentation than a devotional reflection. Others have undertaken well the work of exploring the biblical roots and traditions. While I do not wholly ignore that, this is a modest and devotional meditation in joyful preparation for Christmas and in hopes of helping others to find joy and exhortation in these laconic and beautiful teachings. Let’s look at each of the antiphons in turn.
Dec 17: O Wisdom that comes out of the mouth of the Most High, that reaches from one end to another, and orders all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence.
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
The antiphon here is a brief summary of the wisdom tradition of the Bible. This wisdom, which comes forth from the mouth of God, orders all things mightily.
Notice that the antiphon says that wisdom orders all things. This refers to the obvious fact that there is an order in all of creation. Things work together intricately on many levels. The microscopic level of atoms, molecules, and cells is the foundational matter of an amazing interplay of delicately balanced realities that make possible complex systems of higher life and matter.
Our own bodies bespeak amazing organization in the interplay of the endocrine system, the nervous system, the lymphatic system, muscular and structural parts, and amazingly sophisticated organs such as the eyes and ears, not to mention the brain.
All around us are ecosystems that both support and enable life. There is photosynthesis, amazing weather patterns, and further above us, the Van Allen belts magnetically deflecting the harmful rays of the sun while letting in the helpful ones.
Add to this the beautiful balance of our solar system: the earth being just where it needs to be to permit enough warmth but not too much. Nearby, too, there are comet-catchers like Jupiter and Saturn in the asteroid belt keeping most of the asteroids at bay.
All of this magnificent interplay of systems, this balance and design, is what the wisdom tradition extols, and what the antiphon describes as coming forth from the mouth of God to order all things mightily and sweetly.
The book of Sirach, which announces the glory of God’s creation from 42:15 through 43:35, expressively says at its conclusion, Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
St. Paul takes up the wisdom tradition when he says, For God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Rom 1:20).
St. John takes it up when he writes in the prologue, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made, that was made (Jn 1:1-3). And that word, the Logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. For indeed, God spoke all thinking to being through His word (e.g., Let there be light and there was light). And this Logos conveys a logic (logike) on and in all created things.
The hymn of the Letter to the Colossians says regarding Jesus, the Word made Flesh, 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. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).
This, then, is the great wisdom tradition so beautifully expressed in the antiphon.
Dec 18: O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
This antiphon speaks of Jesus as Lord and Ruler. We shall ponder him as ruler and king in another antiphon below.
But here, note the description of the Lord particularly in the aspect of fire. The first aspect of fire is explicit, in the burning bush that Moses encountered. The second image is less explicit, speaking of Moses up on the mountain receiving the law. The great theophany on Sinai’s heights was described in a fiery sort of way in Exodus 20:18-20 as being almost like a volcano. There are clouds, fire, lightning, and trumpet blasts as Moses goes up on the mountain. The people below are terrified; they instinctively realize that they cannot even touch the base of the mountain because they are not worthy or holy enough to be in God’s fiery presence.
Scripture speaks of God as a consuming fire (Heb 12:29, Psalm 18), a holy fire, and, most productively for us, as a refining fire (Mal. 3:2). As a refining fire, He shall burn away impurities so that we may one day be able to stand before Him with hands raised up praising Him who has redeemed us with strong hand and outstretched arm.
It is no accident that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues of fire. The Holy Spirit enters us as fire to bring us up to the temperature of glory, burning away sinfulness, refining us as pure gold, enabling us to endure the blazing fire of God’s love.
Dec 19: O Root of Jesse, which stands for a sign over the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
This antiphon stresses the historical roots of the Gospel in and among the Jewish people, whom God chose long ago to be the root, the vine, and eventually the very cradle of His saving love for all the nations.
The root of Jesse here (in accord with Isaiah 11) speaks of the Jewish people, of whom Jesus said and affirmed, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
And yet, as countless prophecies also disclosed, there would come a day when the Gentiles would also be joined to the saving plan of God and receive their Messiah from and through the Jewish people. In Romans 11:17 St. Paul speaks of the Gentiles as being like wild olive shoots grafted onto the olive tree, onto the vine of Israel. In this way all Israel will be saved, believing Jews and Gentiles together, grafted to the one vine, made members of the one Body of Christ. And Christ Himself joined the family of Jesse; He is a member of our own family tree!
This, then, is an antiphon that speaks to family ties and history. The Gospel is not located up in the skies; it is down-to-earth; it is among us by God’s grace. He is from us in His human roots and surely is also for us.
Dec 20: O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness.
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 tenebris, et umbra mortis.
A key bespeaks access, and the one who holds the keys has the power to give or refuse admittance.
After original sin, we could no longer endure the presence of God; we were mercifully excluded from the garden, now guarded by an angel with the flaming sword (Gen 3:24). We could not, on our own, ever hope to regain access to the Father. There was no way for us, in our sinful state, to tolerate the holiness of God.
Thus the prophet Malachi memorably asked, But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears? Malachi went on to answer that only when God acted as a refining fire could we be pure enough to endure or abide His presence (Mal 3:3ff). And this Jesus did for us on the cross, purifying us with His own blood, with the fire of His love.
Therefore, it is Jesus who holds the key to open so that no one can close, to close so that no one can open (Rev. 3:7). He alone restores us access to His Father. He opens the gates, not of some earthly paradise, but of Heaven itself. And how beautifully this is shown in the rending of the curtain in the sanctuary from top to bottom.
Yes, Jesus holds the keys to the kingdom. He alone can grant access to the heart of His Father.
Both the keys and the mention of His scepter are reminders of His authority. One day we will stand before Him who will judge us. He alone will grant access, opening so that no one can shut. He alone will deny access to those unfit and incapable of the kingdom, closing so that no one can open.
Dec 21: O Morning Star, Brightness of the everlasting light, and Sun of justice, come to give light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The Latin word used here, oriens, literally and most simply means “the East.” More politically and allegorically it can be translated “morning star,” “the dawn,” “Daystar,” “morning light,” “sunrise,” etc.
Christ is the light of the world. And He will come again from the East. Scripture says in numerous places that Christ will appear from the East:
- For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man (Mt 24:27–28).
- Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God! (Bar 4:36)
- Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision, which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision, which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple (Eze 43:1–5).
- Sing to God, ye kingdoms of the earth: sing ye to the Lord: Sing to God, who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Behold he will give to his voice the voice of power: give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds! (Psalm 68:32-34)
Until relatively recently, the Church faced to the East to pray. Doing so is a way of turning toward God and looking for Him and to Him. Where the altar could not be situated facing East according to the compass, the crucifix became a kind of liturgical East. Everyone would face the same way to pray, especially during the Eucharistic prayer.
The Latin word oriens is also the root of the English word “orientation.” To be oriented means to be properly directed, to be facing in the correct direction.
To say the least, the modern practice of the priest facing the people to pray the Eucharistic prayer is historically flawed. It amounts to a departure from a centuries-old practice and instinct, going all the way back to Old Testament times. Increasingly in the Church today there is a desire by some to “re-orient” the liturgy, literally and figuratively, so that all face the liturgical East during the Eucharistic prayer. On altars that face the people, Pope Benedict encouraged the placement of the crucifix, and he encouraged the clergy to instruct the people that we are really gathered around the cross more so than facing one another. Our focus is to be on God at this moment not one another.
The antiphon goes on to speak of the Lord Jesus as the light of the world and begs Him to shed light on all of us who are in darkness and in the shadow of death. Indeed, Christ alone is the true light of the world and the lamp of the city of God!
The Lord wants His light to shine in this world! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus indicates that He wants His light to shine through us. In this way, in a subordinate sense, we are to be the light of the world (cf Matt 5:14) as Christ shines through us.
But O, the darkness, when Christians do not allow the light of Christ’s truth, His teachings, and His call to repentance and healing to shine through us! One may wonder how the world has become so dark today. The answer is not far away; look around. This is happened on our watch. Too many Christians have sheepishly hidden their light under a bushel basket.
O come Lord Jesus, O Daystar rising in the East, remove whatever hinders us from allowing your light to shine through us. Remove the fear. Remove the aversions. Cleanse us of our sins, which, like soot on glass, do not allow the light to go through. Come, Jesus, light of the world, shine in this world and through us.
Dec 22: O King of the Gentiles, and desire of them, Cornerstone, that makes of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
This antiphon calls Jesus “King.” Is He our king? Does He call the shots or is there someone else we obey? Do you and I obey Christ? Do we allow His thoughts to replace ours? Are His priorities, thoughts, and teachings ours as well?
Jesus Christ told Pontius Pilate that His kingship was about the fact that He came to bear witness to the truth, and that those who were of the truth would listen to His voice. See the connection between faith, kingship, and obedience to the truth that Christ, as King and teacher, proclaims to us!
The antiphon goes on to refer to Christ as the cornerstone. And while in our experience cornerstones tend to be more ceremonial, the cornerstone of a building is critical; the walls above rest on it. Therefore, a cornerstone has to be true, perfectly cut, reliable, sturdy, and firm. Jesus and His teachings are this for us; He is the cornerstone, the foundation on which we stand. And Peter is His vicar. Christ calls Peter the rock on which He will build His Church. Are you standing on the solid rock of Christ’s teachings or on the shifting sands of this world?
The antiphon also says that Christ is the desire of the nations. All of our desires that we think can be fulfilled by worldly things are really pointing to the Lord, who alone can fill the God-sized hole in our hearts. No one but the Lord can really and ultimately satisfy us. Sadly, though, we always think that just one more drink, just a little more money, just one more thing will fulfill us and make us happy. It will not. Christ really is your desire.
Are you and I in touch with this? Or do we think that just one more drink, just one more thing will do it?
Dec 23: O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, and their Savior, come to save us, O Lord our God!
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster
This last antiphon is a great summation of most of the antiphons that have preceded it. The Lord Jesus is summoned as king, lawgiver, the desire of the nations, Savior—indeed, God Himself with us. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, you who are God among us; come and save your people.
VENI veni, Emmanuel
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
|O COME, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that morns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! O Israel,
Veni, O Sapientia,
|O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. R.
Veni, veni, Adonai,
|O come, o come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe. R.
Veni, O Iesse virgula,
|O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave. R.
Veni, Clavis Davidica,
|O come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh. R.
Veni, veni O Oriens,
|O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight. R.
Veni, veni, Rex Gentium,
Veni, veni, Emmanuel
|O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace. R.
O Come, O come, Emmanuel,