Many Catholics find familiarity in singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to herald the new liturgical year, Advent. This is one of the seven “O Antiphons,” which are traditionally sung or chanted as part of sacred prayer as we near Christmas.
The O Antiphons, also known as the ‘Great Antiphons’ or the ‘Great Os’, are Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent. Their origins date back to sixth-century Italy, when Boethius referred to them in written form. His spiritual classic, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” includes an excerpt referring to Lady Philosophy, a reference to Wisdom 8:1, which reads: “He is the highest good, she said, that rules all things mightily and delightfully arranges them.”
The O Antiphons have been around from the earliest days of the Roman breviary — known today as the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours is the arrangement of all 150 Psalms in particular order so that they can be prayed throughout the day, which St. Benedict organized. It includes other Scripture readings and writings from Church fathers.
“These are different pieces of the mystery throughout salvation history referencing the Lord Himself and known as typological antiphons,” explained Father Daniel Koehl, parochial vicar at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Fort Wayne. “When we read Scriptures, we can see how the Lord is foreshadowed in covenants preceding His birth. The O Antiphons are direct typological references from the Old Testament.”
The sequence is sung or spoken in Latin with the “vocative O” beginning it. Each antiphon is a reference to Jesus and contains one of his attributes noted in Scripture. The O Antiphons are, in consecutive order:
Dec. 17: O Sapientia
Dec. 18: O Adonai
Dec. 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
Dec. 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
Dec. 21: O Oriens
Dec. 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
Dec. 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
The first letter of each title following the “O,” (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia) when unscrambled, forms the phrase “Ero cras,” which means, “Tomorrow, I will come.”
The significance of the O Antiphons is 1. Honoring Jesus under a specific title for Him as the Messiah; and 2. Meditating on one of the prophecies of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. They link the Jewish history with the Catholic faith and provide a sacrosanct basis for building anticipation and hope as Christmas approaches.
The intention of the O Antiphons, which are sung in some parishes near the end of Advent, is to act as hopeful prayers, which allow a person to peer into the mystery of the Scriptures leading up to the coming of the newborn King. Father Koehl said this is the final “push of contemplation” that comes at the end of the liturgical season.
Devotees can participate in praying the O Antiphons by finding them in the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the prayer of the Church. That way, they can participate in prayer with the entire Church. In this way, the prayer becomes more than just private devotion.
Father Koehl said, “I have always found it very beautiful that, at the end of the liturgical year, there are many verses read about the last things – heaven, hell, purgatory. If you’re not paying attention, you might just think it’s about the end of the year. But it’s more about the connection of the end of things into the flow of the beginning of the next. It’s all about the contemplation of Christ’s coming, one way or another.”
There are many and numerous ways the Lord comes to His people in everyday life, Father Koehl believes – by way of the sacraments, at the altar, by listening to the priest and in confession. The coming of Christ by way of the word of God itself isn’t just about hearing nice words about Jesus, it’s about Jesus being communicated in a sacramental and palpable way.
With the changing of the liturgical seasons, there is something intrinsically connected between the second coming of Christ with the birth of Jesus. He’s the same God-Man who comes in power to judge the earth in justice and mercy, both at the Incarnation and His second coming. “This power is found in different levels of meekness. We know that His power is a controlled power, present in Him even as He lays cooing as a tiny baby,” Father Koehl shared.
A specific O Antiphon spurred the writing of “Hic” by Father Koehl, a poem attributed to O Dayspring (“O Oriens,” in Latin), which is a reference to the east, to the rising of the sun. This is a direct reference to Easter, the Resurrection. Christmas necessarily leads His children to Easter. Christmas must, in context, include the Paschal Mystery of who Christ is. It’s a reference also to the star of Bethlehem and Jesus as the morning star.
“I had a very important moment of realizing all of these mysteries were connected, about God being present amongst us,” Father Koehl explained about his poem. “If one were to go to the basilica in Nazareth, she or he would find in the lower church what is believed to have been the original home of Mary, which is also the location of the Annunciation.”
There is an altar in that area that says, “And the word was made flesh here – “hic” – and dwelt among us,” Father Koehl said. “Extrapolate from that the spiritual truth — that Emmanuel, God with us, really happened. It was immediate. It was in this location. It was personal. He came for us. He came to be one of us.”
Father Koehl believes there are myriad beautiful images that people need to discover for themselves by entering into a deeper appreciation of praying the O Antiphons. “They are about God revealing Himself to us, in pieces, over time,” he said.
The O Antiphons can help Catholics come to a greater understanding that Jesus came for them in an intimate relationship. They can ask themselves how many times God has appeared to them for the sake of their salvation. Every feast is connected intrinsically to all the others. They string together the beautiful story of salvation. “Jesus came to us, for us. The O Antiphons can be the lead-in to that contemplation of God coming for us, here and now,” Father Koehl concluded.
Inspired by the O Antiphon, O Dayspring (“O Oriens”)
In the beginning was the Word.
The chaos and the darkness heard
and though in their battle array
could not, in spite, waylay
the glimmer, glint, gospel day.
A manger of straw, the far future saw
waiting, waiting, waiting in awe.
Persisting, but awhile, creation strange
fathered forth by whose beauty is past change,
through a Son, though face in veil,
of light and love and gusty gale.
The winds, of time did tell His tale.
When longer not the world could wait,
the star appeared to us, of late,
restoring Earth’s blind to sight,
revealing gentiles in the night,
answering nation’s and nations’ plight.
This is the One who IS
sacrifice, sacerdos magnus,
Aaron, altare, agnus.
Oh Behold! Panis vitae!
Ecce Tempus Epiphaniae!
Three magi travelling for to seek.
Verbum caro factum est,
— Father Daniel Koehl
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.