John Gayford offers a reflection on the Seven Great O Antiphons to the Magnificat in Advent
On the seven days leading to Christmas the Magnificat has antiphons which all start with O. They are all in the 2nd mode of Gregorian chant using an identical melody which gives the impression that they were all written together possibly by the same unknown person. History tells us that they are very old perhaps mentioned by Boethius (St. Severinus) the Christian philosopher (c.480-c.524). By the 8th century they were sung by the Benedictine monks of Fleury where the Abbot would sing the first (O Sapientia…O Wisdom) and it would be passed on each day in descending seniority. The monastic tradition is that the great bell of the abbey sounds all through the Magnificat, and the antiphon is then repeated. Historically this usually starts from 17th December.
The antiphons tell of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah (our Blessed Lord the Incarnate Word of God) and this is picked up by a number of quotations in the New Testament. Originally they were written to be sung in Latin but translate well and can be sung in English.
O Sapientia (17th December)
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a ﬁne usque a ﬁne usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
To live as God wishes for us is real wisdom, a great gift of the Holy Spirit that we should pray for every day. It is the first in our list of prophecies that spans the length of salvation history from the Old Testament, the New Testament and our contemporary Church. The great basilica of Santa Sophia (Holy Wisdom) built in the sixth century was a dedication to this. Only God’s wisdom can save the ignorance of the human race; without God’s wisdom we are nothing. This is how God created order out of chaos. It stands over efficacy and success, as St. Paul puts it Christ is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (I Corinthians 1: 25) This can be given as a reason why Christianity has made such an impact on the world. Time and again in the Gospels we hear the crowds were astonished at the wisdom and teaching of Jesus. Wisdom abounds in the heart of creation and should be seen in liturgy especially Eucharistic liturgy. Come O wisdom and teach us how to believe. Wisdom make us friends of God and is part of the mystery of the incarnation.
Isaiah had prophesied: (11 :2-3) “On him the spirit of the Lord rests, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. (The fear of the Lord is in his breath).”
O Adonai (18th December)
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
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the ﬁre of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
Adonai (Hebrew for Lord) who lead his people from slavery in Egypt to give them a covenant on Mount Sinai. We think of the same God who comes humbly at Christmas. All aspects of the Old Testament are endowed with new significance in the light of the Incarnation. Jesus is the new Moses and the Church in Advent calls on the coming of Christ as O Adonai in that we might be led from sin to the joy of being children of God.
Isaiah (33:22) had prophesied: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king and our saviour.”
O Radix Jesse. (19th December)
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Isaiah had prophesied: “That day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations and its home will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10)
The birth of Jesus, the incarnation grafted on to Jewish stock, was the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. God had chosen a small insignificant nation, a mere stump under Roman domination. The branches are bare in winter, but now there was to be new growth, leaves, buds, flowers and eventually fruit. These branches will need pruning so that this may be more abundant in subsequent seasons. The destiny of this plant is to become the tree of life. Our vision develops with a spiritual excitement.
O Clavis David (20th December)
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.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah had prophesied: “l will place the key of the house of David on his shoulder; should he open, no one shall close; should he close, no one shall open. (Isaiah 22:22)
A key can be the symbol of authority that can open doors to let light into a darkened world. Doors that have been closed for centuries. Keys that open new areas of study and understanding. It is the ultimate key to the kingdom of heaven. We told that the kingdom of heaven is at hand to enter the Royal Palace. It was the simple humanity of Jesus that unlocked the hearts of the meek. What was true in the Biblical ministry of Jesus is still true today.
O Oriens (21st December)
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah had prophesied: “The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.” (Isaiah 9:2)
At the darkest time of the year we pray for God’s bright light to come into our world. The Bible is full of analogies of the battle between light and dark; evil versus good, hope versus despair, death versus life, gloom versus cheer and chaos versus order. In the Old Testament eyes strain to see the light that is to come and in the New Testament Christ is seen as the light of the world. “God is light” (I John 1:5) Jesus goes on to say “I am the light of the world he who follows me will not walk in darkness but live in the light of life”. The true light that will never set; veni illumenina (come and enlighten us). As we say in the creed “light from light”. Sin is like soot on a glass that does not let the light through.
O Rex Gentium (22nd December)
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
Isaiah had prophesied: “For there is a child born for us, a son given to us; and dominion is laid on his shoulders; and this is the name they give him: Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
The Christus Rex depicts Our Blessed Lord on the Cross robed as a Priest with a golden crown on his head. At his trial before Pontius Pilot Jesus was accused of being king of the Jews but he stated his kingdom was not of this world. The preface for the Feast of Christ the King tells what type of kingdom it is; an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. Jesus is king of kings and lord of lords. Come let us adore him.
O Emmanuel (23rd December)
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, hope of nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Isaiah had prophesied: “The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7: 14-15)
The Great O Antiphons of Advent reach their climax with O Emmanuel, God is with us. This is the greatest desire of prayer and honour of all faithful Christians. This was the fulfilment of our interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy recorded by St. Matthew at the birth of Jesus and the last words of his Gospel remember I am with you to the end of time. The presence of God, is the most holy precious thing that gives us grace and solidarity with the Almighty. This is the final vision of the New Testament of God making his home with humanity and wiping away tears from our eyes (Revelation 21:3 and 4).
Although the Great O Antiphons were usually sung 17th to 23rd December there was a relocation in the Middle Ages especially with Sarum Usage where there was a move to sing the antiphons a day earlier. Thus they started on the 16th December. The Book of Common Prayer in its calendar gave 16th December as O Sapientia even without singing the antiphon. We note that with the introduction of Common Worship it was decided to go back to the ancient usage. Those who wanted to revive Sarum Usage require an eighth antiphon for 23rd December.
O Virgo virginum (additional antiphon for 23rd December in Sarum Use)
O Virgo virginum, quomodo ﬁet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem. Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before you was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel you at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.
As can be seen this is nothing about a prophecy of Isaiah nor an O antiphon, but is about Mary Mother of God. It is sung to the same melody as the O antiphons but usually in English with a Sarum Psalm tone for the Magnificat.
Since the Second Vatican Council gave permission, the Great O Antiphons may be sung as the Gospel Acclamation in the Mass of the day, as well as their use in Vespers before the Magnificat.
These antiphons are much loved by those who gain spiritual inspiration when singing the Office in the lead up to Christmas. They also have value for the spoken Office whether said collectively or individually.
Suggested Further Reading:-
– Marshall, W. Come Emmanuel: Devotional Study of the Advent Antiphons Columbia Press Dublin. 1993.
– Treanor, O. Seven Bells to Bethlehem: The O Antiphons. Gracewing. Leominster. 1995.