It is especially in the final week of Advent that our attention is fixed on the messianic promises proclaimed by the ancient prophets of Israel. A distinctive feature of the Liturgy of the Hours in this week preceding the Christmas vigil is the antiphon sung at Vespers (evening prayer) before and after the recitation of the Magnificat. Originally incorporated into the monastic office in the Middle Ages, these antiphons, often called the “Greater Antiphons” or the “O Antiphons”, are also echoed in the daily lectionary as the verse for the gospel acclamation during this week. They add a mood of eager expectation to the liturgy that builds throughout these seven days and climaxes at Christmas.
The O Antiphons have been described as “a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God”. They “create a poetry that fills the liturgy with its splendour”, and their composer shows “a magnificent command of the Bible’s wealth of motifs”. The antiphons are, in fact, a collage of Old Testament types of Christ. Their predominant theme is messianic, stressing the hope of the Saviour’s coming. Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah. The sequence progresses historically, from the beginning, before creation, to the very gates of Bethlehem.
In their structure, each of the seven antiphons follows the same pattern, resembling a traditional liturgical prayer. Each O Antiphon begins with an invocation of the expected Messiah, followed by praise of him under one of his particular titles. Each ends with a petition for God’s people, relevant to the title by which he is addressed, and the cry for him to “Come”.
The seven titles attributed to Jesus in the antiphons are
Wisdom (Sapientia in Latin),
Ruler of the House of Israel (Adonai),
Root of Jesse (Radix),
Key of David (Clavis),
Rising Dawn (Oriens),
King of the Gentiles (Rex)
In Latin the initials of the titles make an acrostic which, when read backwards. means: “Tomorrow I will be there” (“Ero cras”). To the medieval mind this was clearly a reference to the approaching Christmas vigil.
Today the O Antiphons are most familiar to us in the hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel”. Each verse of the hymn parallels one of the antiphons. In addition to their use in the Liturgy of the Hours and the gospel acclamation, they have been popularly incorporated into church devotions and family prayer. An Advent prayer service for use at home, in school, or in the events of parish life can be built around the singing or recitation of the antiphons, accompanied by the related Scripture readings and prayers. They can be prayed at family dinner times or with the lighting of the Advent wreath, with a short explanation of their biblical background. The titles can also be depicted by simple symbols – for example, on banners and posters or in bulletin illustrations – to help us to reflect on these Advent themes.