The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil. The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
Dec 17 O Wisdom: Proverbs 1:20; 8; 9 and I Corinthians 1:30; Sirach 24:2; Wisdom 8:1
Dec 18 O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel: Exodus 3; Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6; Exodus 3:2; 20:1
Dec 19 O Root of Jesse: Isaiah 11:10; Romans 15:12; Revelation 5:5; Isaiah 11:1-3
Dec 20 O Key of David: Isaiah 22:22; Revelation 3:7; Isaiah 22:22
Dec 21 O Dawn of the East (Dayspring): Luke 1:78, 79; Malachi 4:2; Psalm 19:6-7
Dec 22 O King of the Gentiles (Nations): Revelation 15:3; Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; I Peter 2:6; Psalm 2:7-8; Ephesians 2:14-20
Dec 23 O Emmanuel: Isaiah 7:14; 8:8; Matthew 1:23; Haggai 2:7 (KJV; Isaiah 7:14; 33:22 Dec. 24: John 1:1-14.
"Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14 The "O Antiphons" were first used by the Church in the 8th and 9th centuries. They are based on various titles used for the Christ and are scripturally-based short prayers used from the 17th to the 23rd of December. In the Roman Catholic Church they are the antiphons for the Vespers (Evening Prayer)in the Office of the Day. In these "O Antiphons" the Church expresses her deep longing for the coming of the Messiah. The Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is based on the "O Antiphons" and was written sometime during the 9th Century
Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, who appearedst in the Bush of Moses in a flame of fire, and gavest him the law in Sinai: Come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.
Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest, and no man shuttests, and shuttest, and no man openeth: come and bring the prisoner out of the prison house, and him that sittest in darkness, and the shadow of death.
Day-Spring, Brightness of Light, everlasting and sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness, and the shadow of death.
King of the Nations, and their Desire; the Cornerstone, who makest both one: Come and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay.
Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? for neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after: Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? the thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.
O WISDOM, who came from 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. Amen.
O Sapientia: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” (11:2-3), and “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom.” (28:29).
This antiphon, like all the others to follow, is based on a composite of Scripture texts.
Sirach 24:2 In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, in the presence of his hosts she declares her worth: 3 "From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and mistlike covered the earth."
Wisdom 8:1: "She reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well".
Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the open squares she raises her voice; 8 Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching; 9 A graceful diadem will they be for your head; a torque for your neck.
I Corinthians 1:30 It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
Wisdom is here personified, present with God at the beginning of creation. This is a prefigurement of Jesus, the eternal Word of God, the "logos" John described in the opening of his gospel. Wisdom is the foundation of fear of the Lord, of holiness, or right living: it is wisdom whom we bid to come and teach us prudence. The cry "Come" will be repeated again and again, insistent and hope-filled.
The O Antiphons, as you noted, were chanted in Benedictine monasteries for centuries. When I was with the Benedictines in the 50s and 60s I recall that they were considered by many to be among the most beautiful melodies in Latin Gregorian chant.
O LORD AND RULER of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: COME, and redeem us with outstretched arms. Amen. "O Adonai..."
O Adonai: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” (11:4-5); and “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us.” (33:22).
Exodus 3:2: "An angel of the Lord appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed". Exodus 6:6: "Therefore say to the Israelites: I am Yahweh. I will free you from the enforced labor of the Egyptians and will deliver you from their slavery. I will rescue you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment".
"Adonai" is Hebrew for "my Lord", and was substituted by devout Jews for the name "Yahweh", out of reverence. With this second antiphon we progress from creation to the familiar story of God manifesting himself by name to Moses and giving his law to Israel as their way of life. We are also reminded of the Israelites' deliverance from bondage under pharaoh - a foreshadowing of our own redemption from sin. The image of God's arm outstretched in power to save his chosen people also brings to mind the later scene of Jesus with his arms outstretched for us on the cross.
O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel: Exodus 3; Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6 Exodus 3:2; 20:1
Each Antiphon begins with "O" and addresses Jesus with a unique title which comes from the prophecies of Isaias and Micheas (Micah), and whose initials, when read backwards, form an acrostic for the Latin "Ero Cras" which means "Tomorrow I come." Those titles for Christ are:
Sapientia Adonai Radix Jesse Clavis David Oriens Rex Gentium Emmanuel
O ROOT OF JESSE, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: COME, to deliver us, and tarry not. Amen. "O Radix Jesse..."
O Radix Jesse: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (11:1), and A On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” (11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:1).
Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:2: "See, my servant shall prosper...So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless. ...He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot". Isaiah 11:1-3 Isaiah 11:10; Romans 15:12; Revelation 5:5
Isaiah prophesied a restoration of David's throne - a new branch budding out of the old root. Christ is the root of Jesse in a two-fold sense: he is the descendant of David, who was the youngest son of Jesse, and he inherited the royal throne. The angel foretold to Mary, "The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will be without end" (Luke 1:32-33).
Our hearts more and more urgently cry out for God's reign to extend over all humanity: "Come, save us, and do not delay".
O KEY OF DAVID, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: COME, and bring forth the captive from his prison, he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen. "O Clavis David..."
O Clavis David: “O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.” Isaiah had prophesied, AI will place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open.” (22:22), and “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over His kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” (9:6). Isaiah 22:22: "I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder. When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.
Revelation 3:7: "To the presiding spirit of the church in Philadelphia write this: 'The holy One, the true, who wields David's key, who opens and no one can close, who closes and no one can open'". Isaiah 42:6-7: "I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon those who live in darkness".
The key and scepter are traditional symbols of kingly power and authority. Christ, the anointed one, is the heir of David and possessor of the kingdom. Jesus himself also made use of this symbol, showing the propheticrelationship of the earthly kingdom of David to the kingdom of God. All power and authority was given to him after the resurrection, and he entrusted this power to "bind and to loose" to Peter and the ministers of his church. In the closing petition we look to Jesus to unlock the fetters of sin that keepus s tightly chained. It is he who frees us from our captivity. We recall the deliverance proclaimed by the psalmist of old: "they dwelt in darkness and gloom, bondsmen in want and in chains,...and he led them forth fromdarkness and gloom and broke their bonds asunder" (Psalm 107: 10, 14).