What is this special something? The "O Antiphons." (Antiphons are short sentences sung or chanted before the recitation of a psalm or canticle.)
The antiphons of Evening Prayer which we see in the week before Christmas welcome the birth of the Savior by heralding one of His resplendent Biblical titles along with a special petition related to that title.
It is a liturgical tradition that was started in the earliest centuries of the Church—one that has continued to the present day in monasteries and convents, and even in the homes of the Catholic faithful who make portions of the Divine Office part of their daily prayers.
You might recognize these antiphons from the beautiful Advent hymn "O Come O Come Emmanuel."
THE "O" ANTIPHONS
The O Antiphons are particularly special. These seven antiphons are prayed immediately before the Magnificat during Vespers in the week before Christmas.
Each antiphon begins with the exclamation "O", which is why they are popularly called the "O Antiphons."
They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the "Octave before Christmas," from December 17th to the 23rd. (December 24 is Vespers of the Christmas Vigil, and does not have an O Antiphon.)
THE PROPHETIC TITLES OF JESUS
Each O Antiphon emphasizes a unique 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 were prayed. If you take the first letter of each antiphon (in the Latin) and read them from last to first, the word ERO CRAS is spelled, which translates: "Tomorrow I will come."
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 Roman Catholic Lectionary Website.
You can also listen to the O Antiphons in their original context, being chanted in Latin by monks, by clicking here.
PRAY THE O ANTIPHONS
Listed below are the O Antiphons.
I encourage you to make a new tradition this year by praying these antiphons on the seven nights before Christmas Eve to help you welcome the newborn King.
You can pray them by themselves if you are short on time, or pray them in their context of Evening Prayer. You can pray along with the Divine Office daily by signing up for our free Morning Offering Daily Devotional Email.
1. O Wisdom (O Sapientia) – Dec. 17
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.
2. O Lord of Israel (O Adonai) – Dec. 18
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.
3. O Root of Jesse (O Radix Jesse) – Dec. 19
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.
4. O Key of David (O Clavis David) – Dec. 20
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 vinctumde domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
5. O Radiant Dawn (O Oriens) – Dec. 21
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 illuminasedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
6. O King of All Nations (O Rex Gentium) – Dec. 22
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, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
7. O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel) – Dec. 23
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, expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
This article has been updated. It was first published in 2012 © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.