Almost everyone is familiar with the carol “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” But what you may not know is that the song is based on a beautiful series of ancient prayers called the O Antiphons—or, less formally, the Great O’s—that Christians around the world sing on the final week in Advent.
I recommend them to you as a wonderful way to prepare for Christmas, the holy Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Sung between December 17 and 23, they all celebrate the coming of the incarnate God. (Because Christmas begins at sundown on December 24, Christmas Eve isn’t counted as part of Advent; hence the O Antiphons end on the 23rd, not the 24th.)
An antiphon is a phrase that’s said or sung before and after a psalm or canticle. There are antiphons specific to each of the church seasons. Their purpose is to capture the various spiritual timbres and messages of the seasons. Solemnly penitential antiphons that are appropriately sung during Lent, for example, would be out of place in the celebratory season of Epiphany.
The O Antiphons can be sung at any time during Advent’s final week. Because they’re easily memorizable, I tend to whisper them throughout the day to keep myself mindful of the coming of the Messiah. But strictly speaking, they typically precede and follow Evening Prayer’s recitation of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary recorded in Luke’s gospel (1:46-55) that proclaims the liberating message of God’s mercy and justice.
The O Antiphons are so-named because all 7 of them begin with the word “O,” immediately followed by one of the titles for the Messiah recorded by the prophet Isaiah. Running from first to last, the messianic titles celebrated in the antiphons are “Wisdom,” “Ruler of Israel,” “Root of Jesse,” “Key of David,” “Rising Dawn,” “King of the Gentiles,” and “Emmanuel.”
Just to give you a feel for the O Antiphons’ beauty, here’s both the English and the Latin versions of the 3rd one, which is sung on December 19.
“O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!”
“O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare!”
Each of the O Antiphons has the same structure: a proclamation of one of the Messiah’s titles, brief praise, and a short petitionary prayer that’s prefaced by the word “come” (Latin: “veni”). You can positively feel the quiver of anticipation in the antiphons’ longing for the arrival of the Messiah, the Emmanuel who revitalizes creation with wisdom, power, love, liberation, justice, and salvation, and who shows us what it means to be fully human.
When we sing the O Antiphons, we participate in a centuries-old tradition. It’s not clear when they were first used, but the early 6th century philosopher Boethius alludes to them. Two centuries later, with the practice of Gregorian chant catching on in prayer and liturgy, the O Antiphons appear to have become staples in the many monasteries that were beginning to dot Europe.
Arranged in their final sequence by Benedictine monks during the Middle Ages, the first letters of the Latin titles of the Messiah in each of the O Antiphons, when read backwards, make an acrostic: “Ero cras,” or “Tomorrow I will be there.” So, as more than one commentator has observed, the O Antiphons are at one and the same time a prayer—“Come!”—and, acrostically, an answer: “I will!”
All of us are painfully aware of how hectic, noisy, and deflationary our consumerist culture can make the Christmas season, and we long to recapture its simple and holy joy, gratitude, and wonderment. Calming the spirit by praying the O Antiphons is one very good way of doing that. This coming week, say them, chant them, or sing them, by yourself or with family and friends. Let their beauty prepare you for the birth of God.