Conversatio Divina

Part 18 of 23

Hope for the Unseen

Praying the O Antiphons in Advent

Jamie Cain

Seven ancient verses help us learn to “wait with expectation” during Advent.

01.  Introduction

At Christmastime, the hymns and carols of the church suddenly appear everywhere: on late-night television, in classic holiday movies, and on the radio. It’s one of the few times of the year that the gospel goes mainstream.

What many people don’t consider, though, is that not all Christmas carols are Christmas carols. created equal. The distinction is subtle, maybe, but important—some of our Christmas carols are, in fact, Advent carols.

Carols such as “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” are Christmas carols. In other words, they celebrate the arrival of the Christ child.

But Advent is more about expectation, looking forward to the arrival of the long-promised Messiah. They anticipate the coming of the Christ child as Advent carols. Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” captures this sense of hope that will be realized with the birth of Jesus.

Likely the best-known example of an Advent hymn, sung by many as a Christmas carol, is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Its five verses call for the Messiah’s coming, using richly evocative biblical titles set to a wistful melody.

What may be less known is that “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” first published in 1851, exposed a new audience to an ancient Advent tradition. The church had been singing the O Antiphons, short sentences that introduce a longer Psalm or song, for more than a thousand years.

In this essay, we’ll briefly consider the history of these antiphons, in particular how they arise from messianic titles fulfilled in Jesus, before turning to the way these antiphons serve to cultivate a particular posture in a community of believers.

02.  A (Very) Brief Antiphon Primer

An antiphon is a short Scripture verse or sentence that is sung or recited before or after a Psalm or canticle. In Advent, for example, an Anglican service may introduce the Psalm with the antiphon, “Our King and Savior draws nigh: O come, let us adore him.”

Contemporary worship makes little use of these antiphons, but they continue to be used in churches with higher liturgy. The Orthodox liturgy normally begins with three antiphons, Catholic churches sing or chant antiphons at Matins and Vespers, and the Anglican Service Book lists antiphons that may be used for the Daily Office on principal feasts and holy days.

Historically, a second choir sang the antiphon (in response to, or anti/against, the main verse). Today they may be sung or recited by the entire congregation, with some specific purposes in mind. They may be used:


  1. To praise and call upon God. Psalm 80 includes the refrain, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”Psalm 80:3, 7, 19, NRSVUE;

    Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

  2. To redirect the listener’s focus. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist, in Psalms 42 and 43, “. . . Hope in God.”Psalms 42:5, 11, and 43:5.
  3. To remind the listener of God’s faithfulness. Psalm 46 recounts the uncertainties of the world before asserting, “the God of Jacob is our fortress” (verses 7, 11, NIVAll Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ).
  4. As an interpretive lens. Sometimes antiphons function as a refrain or chorus that unites the congregation in interpreting the main Psalm. The antiphon for Psalm 1 in the Anglican tradition is “The Lord knows the way of the righteous.”

The O Antiphons sung at Advent accomplish several of these tasks at once. They call on Jesus using one of his biblical titles or aspects. They offer urgent prayers for his coming. They remind those who sing of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise of salvation. And they cast fresh light on Mary’s canticle of praise.

03.  The O Antiphons

Sometimes called the Great Antiphons, these sevenIn English tradition up through the twentieth century, churches added an eighth antiphon (O Virginum), making the acronym Vero cras, or “truly, tomorrow.” A number of other “O” antiphons exist, but they do not address the Messiah. verses are sung or chanted during Vespers (the evening service) during the final week of Advent, from December 16 or 17 to December 23. Each verse begins with O, followed by a name or title given to the Messiah in the Scriptures.

As noted above, many know the content of the O Antiphons (sometimes called the Great Antiphons) thanks to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and the translation efforts of John Mason Neal.

Neale found his Latin text in a French hymnal printed in 1710. That Latin version may have been composed as early as the twelfth century, but it paraphrased an even older version. It was likely known to Boethius, author of the Consolation of Philosophy, who lived in Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries (c. 475–526).Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (written in 523) includes a line that echoes the first of the O Antiphons, “O Sapientia” (“O Wisdom”).

04.  A Formational Look at the Great O’s

As noted above, the O Antiphons precede and follow the Magnificat in the Vespers order. Mary’s song is a declaration of Israel’s long hope for the Messiah, and a recognition that God is at last acting as he promised in Mary’s own life.

We offer the O Antiphons in the same spirit, for they are prayers. They elaborate on the simple prayer of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,”Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” 1868. that the “holy child of Bethlehem” would “be born in us today,” would “come to us, abide with us.” They are prayers, as you’ll see below, that our lives would be cruciform.Medieval writers saw a further promise of Messiah’s coming even in the first letters of the titles, which, taken from last to first, spell the words Ero cras, Latin for “I will be [there] tomorrow.”

05.  O Sapientia (December 17)

O Wisdom, which came out of the mouth of the Most High, and reaches from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Wisdom comes from God the Father, and he shaped and orders the universe (John 1, Colossians 1:17).  The words “mightily and sweetly” come from the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 8:1, which reads, “She [Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.”Written in the first century BC, the book was included with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and would have been familiar to and considered valuable by early Christians.

We can only learn the way of wisdom from God (Proverbs 4:11). We have his assurance, however, that he has given us his Wisdom in Jesus Christ, and that we can walk in wisdom as his free gift (James 1:5).

06.  December 18 O Adonai

O Adonai, and Leader of the house or Israel, who appeared in the bush to Moses in a name or fire, and gave him the law in Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is God—the same God who appeared to Moses in Exodus 3, and who revealed the law on Sinai (Exodus 19–20). This prayer reminds us that God’s purpose in giving the law is not to condemn, but to redeem his people.

Jesus embodies that law, fulfilling every word, every command, faithfully. As St. John the Evangelist writes that Jesus, the Incarnate Word, was sent not to condemn the world, “but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

In a very real sense, Jesus was and is God’s outstretched arm, the “arm of the Lord” (cf. Isaiah 53:1). We pray here that the Almighty God would finish the redemption work begun and completed in Jesus Christ, a redemption that we experience as both now and not yet.

07.  December 19 O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, unto whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

Similarly to the previous antiphon, “O Radix” is a prayer for deliverance, for liberation. It’s the first reminder of Jesus’ royal lineage, his messianic identity as “great David’s greater Son” (from the hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, “ 1821.).

But the prayer also quotes Isaiah 11:10 (and Romans 15:12) to offer hope to all of us who stand outside the boundaries of national Israel. The Magi visiting the Holy Family gives us a first glimpse of this fulfilled hope.

The use of “root” may also remind us that Gentiles were grafted into Israel, and we “now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17, ESVScripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.).

08.  December 20 O Clavis David

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel; that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens: Come, and bring the prisoners out of the prison-house, them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

Another reference to Jesus as David’s royal heir, “O Clavis” recalls several passages from Isaiah, who writes often about the light of God illuminating the darkness.Isaiah 42:7, 16; Isaiah 49:9.  The antiphon also references Psalm 23 (“the valley of the shadow of death”).

This antiphon also quotes Jesus’ words to the church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7–8). He is not only the open door, but he is able to unlock and open prison doors. The metaphor of Jesus as key directly implies his power to free anyone and everyone in bondage to sin and death.

09.  December 21 O Oriens

O Day-spring, Brightness or the Light everlasting, and Sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

Oriens is the Latin word for “east,” from which the English word, “orient,” comes. Jesus is, after all, the light of men, the truly invincible light shining in the darkness (John 1). In Malachi, God promises a Messiah who will be a “sun of righteousness” who rises “with healing in its wings” (4:2).“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley takes up this title for Jesus in the third verse: “Hail the Sun of righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.” (Note: although Charles Wesley published this hymn in 1739, the current carol we sing is based on George Whitefield’s adaptation in 1758.)

Our tendency is to hold back the darkest places, the places we fear to see Jesus shine his life-giving light. This prayer encourages us to ask for that very light where we have sat in “darkness and the shadow of death.”

10.  December 22 O Rex gentium

O King of Nations, and their Desire; the Cornerstone, who makes both one: Come and save mankind, whom thou formed of clay.

Here we have another reminder of the hope of all humankind, all the nations, in Jesus. In his death, Jesus has become the Cornerstone for one “holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21), a united people who are God’s dwelling place. He has, in St. Paul’s words, “broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile, creating “one new man in place of the two” (Ephesians 2:14–15).

We are clay, the work of a master Potter (Isaiah 64:8). We are fragile and finite, yes—yet Christ fills us with his glory, his light and life. We pray here that Christ would save mankind, and ultimately that his glory would shine through our all-too-brittle lives (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6–8).

11.  December 23 O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Isaiah 7:14 is perhaps the key messianic promise recorded by that prophet. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” he writes, “and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Jesus’ birth, St Matthew writes, fulfilled this promise. “Man’s maker was made man,” St Augustine writes, “that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that the Truth might be accused of false witness, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”

St John puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). It’s a crucial development, because only God can save us. That God dwelled among us, as one of us, grounds our hope for redemption.

12.  Waiting in Patient Expectation

The O Antiphons provide us some practice in what Henri Nouwen called “active waiting.” We wait actively, he says, when we are “present fully for the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.”

Advent means waiting, but we have grown weary of waiting. That’s one reason we see Christmas decorations advertised in October, why we sing Christmas carols in Advent. Waiting, after all, is something done to us, inflicted upon us. Right?

Wrong. If “waiting patiently in expectation” is an essential spiritual posture—“the foundation of the spiritual life,” according to Simone Weil—then we need to learn, or relearn, how to wait “patiently in expectation.”

In that spirit, we offer these prayers from where we are, looking not to escape from the world but to help us wait patiently for his appearing. They enable us to remember, as Nouwen writes, that “waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.”

That “something more” certainly involves our celebration of Jesus’ coming—Christmas, or the Feast of the Nativity. But it also involves our patient expectation of his final Advent, his return “in like manner” (Acts 1) to make all things new.

It also involves our paying attention to how he is making us new here and now, where we are. Our imagination, no matter how wild, cannot match the reality of God’s plan for us. So we pray, looking forward to Christ’s coming in our own heart and life, enacting his creation restoration plan one person at a time.

Let us pray, then, let us chant, let us sing these O Antiphons again! With all those who’ve sung them through the ages, we wait “in patient expectation” of these ways Jesus has come and is coming and will come again.

13.  Applications

  1. Add the O Antiphons to your day from December 17–23. Use them as a springboard to deeper prayer, using the text above as a guide.
  2. The O Antiphons are often sung, so many musical settings exist. Listen to one or more and consider what singing adds to your experience and practice.
  3. The poet Malcolm Guite wrote poetic interpretations of the O Antiphons for his collection Sounding the Seasons. Listen to his reading of “O Sapientia” here. You can find the rest of his O Antiphon poems on his blog.


Hans Bachmann (1852 – 1917), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Part 7 of 23


Jamie Cain
September 22, 2021