From Woes to O’s!
In the week before Christmas, a lesser-known Catholic tradition begins – the ‘O Antiphons’. Sometimes called the ‘Great Advent Antiphons’, they are recited during Vespers (Evening Prayer) at the beginning and end of the Magnificat and as the alleluia verse during Mass.
Based on the prophecies of Isaiah, the O Antiphons run from December 17-23, each one focussing on a title given to the Messiah.
Christians have long used acrostics and other word plays to communicate ideas. The most famous is ICTHYS, which stands for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. In Greek, the letters spell ‘fish’ and so the fish symbol was adopted by early Christians as an identifier.
The O Antiphons also contain an acrostic: the first letter of each title (going in reverse) spells ERO CRAS – which in Latin, means “I shall come tomorrow”.
For those of us prone to panic ahead of Christmas – “O.M.G! It’s Christmas next week!” – the O Antiphons are a brilliant antidote. Let this ‘list’ of simple prayers displace the shopping list. Let our anxious woes be redirected to our collective longing for the Messiah – O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
The O Antiphons
A number of translations from the Latin exist. The ones below are taken from My Catholic Life
O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power & love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
December 19 |O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) Isaiah 11:10
O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
December 21 |O Oriens (O Rising Sun) Isaiah 9:1
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.
December 22 |O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) Isaiah 2:4
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
December 23 |O Emmanuel (God with us) Isaiah 7:14
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Dating from the 12th century, the O Antiphons were compiled into the great Advent hymn of longing: O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Originally consisting of three verses, it was later translated, and the remaining verses added.
- O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
- O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain
- O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
- O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain
- come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain
- O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain
- O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain