During the final days of Advent, the anticipation increases as the birth of the Savior draws nearer and nearer. In the final eight days (octave) before Christmas, this anticipation is marked by something special that happens in the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The antiphons of the Evening Prayers (Vespers) during the week before Christmas all welcome the birth of the Savior by heralding one of His resplendent Biblical titles along with a special petition in light of that title. It is a liturgical tradition started in the earliest centuries of the Church and continues in monasteries and convents today, and even in homes of the Catholic faithful who make the Liturgy of the Hours a part of their daily prayers.
The O Antiphons refer to the seven antiphons that are prayed immediately before the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. Each antiphon begins with the exclamation “O”, thus earning their popular name of the O Antiphons. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, from Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being the Vespers for the Christmas Vigil.
The O Antiphons are special because each one emphasizes a different prophetic title of the soon-to-be-born King of Kings as foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the prophet Isaiah: Wisdom, Lord of Israel, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Radiant Dawn, King of All Nations, and Emmanuel.
Additionally, the ancient monks who first assembled the O Antiphons were very creative with the order in which they are prayed. If one takes the first letter of each antiphon (in the Latin) starting from the last to the first, the word ERO CRAS is formed which translates, “Tomorrow I will come.” The last antiphon is prayed on the final day before the Christmas Eve Vigil.
The O Antiphons are also the content of the popular Christmas hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. For the complete Latin and English translation of the O Antiphons found in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Lectionary for Mass, the O Come, O Come, Emmanuel hymn, and the corresponding verses from Sacred Scripture on which they are based, check out the The Roman Catholic Lectionary Website. You can also listen to the O Antiphons in their original context, being chanted in latin by monks, here.
Listed below are the O Antiphons, which are prayed before and after the Magnificat during the Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the Liturgy of the Hours. I encourage you to make a new tradition this year to pray one of these short prayers on the seven nights before Christmas Eve to help welcome the newborn King!
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.
quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Lord of Israel
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.
et dux domus Israël,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Root of Jesse
O Root of Jesse,
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.
O Radix Jesse,
qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos,
jam noli tardare.
O Key of 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.
O Clavis David,
et sceptrum domus Israël,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit,
claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum
de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Radiant Dawn
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina
sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O King of All Nations
O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man:
Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.
O Rex Gentium,
et desideratus earum,
qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.
Rex et legifer noster,
et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.