Advent ends with a sequence of days that are marked with special devotions. If you’re a liturgy enthusiast you probably know about this: the “O Antiphons”. In English tradition they start on December 16th and in Continental tradition they start on December 17th, counting down the last eight (or seven, respectively) evenings until Christmas Eve. The seventh is the most famous: “Veni, veni Emmanuel” translated “O come, O come, Emmanuel” and has become the first verse of the famous Advent hymn. The first six antiphons inspired additional verses thereafter. The English tradition has an eighth one at the end, moving all the others up a day compared to Europe. Since this sequence begins in just a couple days, I thought it’d be nice to explore them here ahead of time.
Each of these point us to the culmination of Advent: the first and second arrivals of Jesus in this world.
And if you want to know more about the liturgical background and use of these antiphons (including what an antiphon actually is), you can read up on that here.
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.
Wisdom personified is an Old Testament phenomenon particularly showcased in Proverbs 8, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 24, and Wisdom 8. There, Wisdom is a woman, standing in contrast to another woman, Folly, but in Christian interpretation this has been understood to be a prefiguring of Jesus, who himself is the Way, Truth, and Life. Isaiah 11:1-2 also speaks prophetically of Jesus (and by extension all who are in Christ) as being filed with “the spirit of wisdom.” Our prayer here is for Jesus, as our Wisdom, to teach us his ways that we and the whole world might be put in right order.
O Adonai [Lord], 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.
The name “Adonai” is one of the common names for God in the Old Testament, usually translated “Lord” (as opposed to “LORD” which stands for the YHWH / Yahweh name of God). Here we celebrate our Lord Jesus Christ, who ministered to Moses (referencing Exodus 3 and 24) and ask him for the completion of our own redemption. This is not to say that the Cross is insufficient, but to acknowledge that it is only upon Jesus’ return that his work of salvation is brought to its full fruition.
O Root [or Rod] 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.
The root or stump of Jesse is an image from Isaiah 11 and other Old Testament texts. From that root (or lineage) a Savior would come, and indeed Jesus was descended from Jesse and his son David, which we find clearly marked out in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. As a kingly heir, Jesus will see earthly kings seek his counsel and pay him homage. This we see beginning to be fulfilled at the Epiphany (the Adoration of the Magi in Matthew 2) but not fully realized until the end of the age. We pray again here for deliverance, this time to Jesus as a king.
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 dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The freeing of prisoners is an image of salvation that pops up here and there throughout the Bible. The Key of David image is from Isaiah 22:22, and similar promises of the authority of God’s Anointed One (or Christ, or Messiah) can be found in Isaiah 9:7 and 42:7. When Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom” to his Apostles (cf. Matthew 16) it was a similar concept: the investing of a ministry of reconciliation to the Church. Although Jesus has already unlocked and opened the door to eternal life, the last enemy, death, has yet to be defeated and shut away; so we pray for that day.
O Morning Star (or Day-spring or Rising Sun), splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Jesus as the light at dawn (translated with various degrees of poetry) is a well-known image, especially associated with the bringing of knowledge of salvation. This phrase is drawn from Zechariah 3:8 and Isaiah 9:2, with a hint of the Song of Zachariah (the Benedictus) in Luke 1. This is the first of these antiphons that isn’t directly for us, praying that God would enlighten “those who dwell in darkness…” making this an entry in this list that is particularly evangelistic, looking outside of the confines of the Church and not solely within.
O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race,which you fashioned from clay.
Like the previous antiphon, this one also looks out the world around us. This antiphon draws primarily from Haggai 2:8, and also echos texts from Isaiah 2, 9, and 64. The entire human race is the object of our petition now, as we’ve recognized that Jesus is a king for all peoples, not just those of David’s people.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
This mayn’t be as poetic as the standard “O Come, O come Emmanuel” lyrics in English, but its simplicity still speaks volumes. Several of the previous antiphons are summarized and hinted at in these words, and Isaiah 7:14 is the source of the name Emmanuel (or “God With Us”). Jesus promise that he would be with us “always, even to the end of the age” (at the end of Matthew 28), and this was made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Yet we rightly watch for the day when he will be Emmanuel not just via the Spirit’s presence but in the flesh once again, and we can see him face to face.
O 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.
This antiphon, obviously, looks at Mary rather than at Jesus directly. The image of the “daughters of Jerusalem” is akin to some found in Lamentations 2 and Zechariah 9:9, and the more specific image of a prominent woman addressing the daughters of Jerusalem is a recurring them in the Song of Solomon. The call not to marvel at her is a clever twist of verses such as Habakkuk 1:5, where the people are called to marvel at the amazing works of God. Thus we honor Mary, the “Virgin of virgins”, yet affirm that she is not the final object of our attention, but the “divine mystery” – Jesus himself. More on this antiphon here, if you’re interested.
So, if you start these on the evening of December 16th, and pray one each day, you’ll finish on the 23rd, leaving the 24th (Christmas Eve) open to rejoice in the celebration of the fulfillment of all these prayers in the person of Jesus Christ.