The ‘O Antiphons’

Antiennes-OFrom 17 -24 December, we move into the second stage of Advent, with the emphasis less on waiting for the Second Coming of Christ and more on preparing ourselves for a worthy celebration of the Nativity.

A very ancient set of prayers used during this time are the ‘O Antiphons’, recited during Evening Prayer. These short prayers take up seven titles for the Messiah found in the bible.

For example, on the 20th December we pray: “O key of David and sceptre of Israel, what you open no one else can close again; what you close, no one can open. O come and lead the captive from prison; free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This text, picking up on the prophecy of Isaiah 22:22 (‘the Key of David will be place upon his shoulder and what he opens no one will shut’) speaks of Jesus’ Coming as a moment of liberation, when the gates of heaven are swung wide open.

At some stage in their history, Benedictine monks put these antiphons into the particular order  found below.

O Wisdom (Sapientia)
O Lord (Adonai)
O Root of Jesse (Radix Jesse)
O Key of David (Clavis David)
O Rising Sun (Oriens)
O King of the Nations (Rex gentium)
O God-with-us (Emmanuel)


There was a liturgical joke in doing this. By taking the first letter in Latin of each of the titles and working backwards, we come up with the words, Ero cras meaning ‘I will come tomorrow.’ It’s as if Christ’s promise is hidden even in our petitions for him to come and save us.

You’ve probably spotted that these antiphons are the inspiration behind the familiar Advent hymn, O come, O come Emmanuel. In these last few days before Christmas, why not find time to read through the verses of this hymn and take some time to pray about what they are saying?