The O Antiphons

The Greater Antiphons of December 17-23

Nativity Scene silhouette on Christmas Ornament
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If asked to name an Advent hymn, most people would reply, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." In fact, that may be the only Advent hymn they know by name, and small wonder: It is the most popular of all Advent hymns, and most parishes start singing it on the First Sunday in Advent.

But do you know where the hymn comes from?

Its origins go back almost 1,500 years, to medieval Europe, where an unknown author wrote seven antiphons—short lines to be sung before and after psalms. Those seven antiphons all begin with the "O," and thus became known as "The O Antiphons."

Composed in the sixth or seventh century, the O Antiphons are used in vespers (evening prayer) and the Masses for December 17-23. Each begins with a title for Christ, drawn from the Book of Isaiah, and the first letters of the titles in Latin are SARCORE. Read backward, that is ero cras, which means "Tomorrow I come" (or "shall be"). (Traditionally, feasts were said to begin on the eve of their celebration, so Christmas begins at sundown on Christmas Eve.)

We can make the O Antiphons part of our Advent preparation by including them in our prayers or Advent Scripture readings on the appropriate day. The Latin text is below, with a common English translation.

December 17—"O Sapientia"/"O Wisdom"

Religious: Nativity Scene silhouette on Christmas Ornament
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The O Antiphon for December 17, "O Sapientia"/"O Wisdom," is drawn from Isaiah 11:2-3 and 28:29.

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 17

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 17

O Wisdom, Who didst come out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come and teach us the way of prudence.

December 18—"O Adonai"

The O Antiphon for December 18, "O Adonai," is drawn from Isaiah 11:4-5 and 33:22.

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 18

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 18

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, Who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and didst give unto him the Law on Sinai: come and with an outstretched arm redeem us.

December 19—"O Radix Jesse"/"O Root of Jesse"

The O Antiphon for December 19, "O Radix Jesse"/"O Root of Jesse," is drawn from Isaiah 11:1 and 11:10.

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 19

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 19

O Root of Jesse, Who dost stand for an ensign of the people, before Whom kings shall keep silence, and unto Whom the Gentiles shall make their supplication: come to deliver us, and tarry not.

December 20—"O Clavis David"/"O Key of David"

The O Antiphon for December 20, "O Clavis David"/"O Key of David," is drawn from Isaiah 9:6 and 22:22.

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 20

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.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 20

O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel, Who dost open and no man doth shut, Who dost shut and no man doth open, come and bring forth from his prisonhouse the captive that sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.

December 21—"O Oriens"/"O Dawn of the East"

The O Antiphon for December 21, "O Oriens"/"O Dawn of the East," is drawn from Isaiah 9:2. "Dawn of the East" is often translated as "Dayspring."

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 21

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 21

O Dawn of the East, Brightness of the Light Eternal and Sun of Justice, come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

December 22—"O Rex Gentium"/"O King of the Gentiles"

The O Antiphon for December 22, "O Rex Gentium"/"O King of the Gentiles," is drawn from Isaiah 2:4 and 9:7.

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 22

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 22

O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of them, Thou Cornerstone that dost make both one, come and deliver man, whom Thou didst form out of the dust of the earth.

December 23—"O Emmanuel"

The O Antiphon for December 23, "O Emmanuel," is drawn from Isaiah 7:14. "Emmanuel" means "God with us."

Latin Text of the O Antiphon for December 23

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

English Translation of the O Antiphon for December 23

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the Nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God.

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Richert, Scott P. "The O Antiphons." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2018, thoughtco.com/o-antiphons-542843. Richert, Scott P. (2018, January 12). The O Antiphons. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/o-antiphons-542843 Richert, Scott P. "The O Antiphons." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/o-antiphons-542843 (accessed May 25, 2018).