Short Commentaries on the ‘O Antiphons’

Having introduced the subject of the O Antiphons elsewhere on this site, I would like to produce the text of each of them here, followed by some comments illustrating how rich these antiphons are in scriptural content and meaning.

Note that there are some slight differences of wording and capitalization between the texts of the antiphons and the scriptural texts I cite separately. I have stayed faithful to my source material and have not attempted to make the liturgical texts conform precisely to the standards of the Challoner version of the Douay-Rheims Bible.

I. O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

“O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence!”

Biblical references:

  • “I [Wisdom] came out of the mouth of the most High, the firstborn before all creatures.” —Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 24:5
  • “She [Wisdom] reacheth therefore from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly.” —Wisdom 8:1

There are numerous references to “prudence” and “counsel” in the Old Testament, especially in the Wisdom Books, which would have informed the anonymous author’s closing petition in this antiphon. In light of what we know from the New Testament, the reference from Ecclesiasticus — “that comest out of the mouth of the Most High” — clearly relates the text to the eternal generation of the Son as the Word (Logos) of God who is born eternally in the bosom of the Father by an act of spiritual begetting we call “filiation.” It is rather stunning that this passage from Ecclesiasticus is connected to the text from the book of Wisdom about “ordering all things,” for the Greek concept of Logos includes the notion of ordering things. One of the meanings of Logos is the very principle of order in the universe. It is not only Wisdom’s sheer power we celebrate here, but also His sweetness in ordering things. Psalm 33:9 directs us: “O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopeth in him,” and the Book of Wisdom (12:1) praises Him in similar terms: “O how good and sweet is thy spirit, O Lord, in all things!” Saint Paul echoes this latter sentiment when he assures us: “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (Rom. 8:28).

II. O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

“O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!”

Biblical references:

  • “And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt.” —Exodus 3:2
  • “And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony….” —Exodus 34:29
  • “Remember that thou also didst serve in Egypt, and the Lord thy God brought thee out from thence with a strong hand, and a stretched out arm. Therefore hath he commanded thee that thou shouldst observe the sabbath day.” —Deut. 5:15

In calling Jesus, Adonai, the antiphon employs one of the seven Hebrew names of God, this one meaning, “Lord.” The Lord, that is the as-yet unincarnate Logos, appeared to Moses in the burning bush, which He inhabited with the flame of His divinity without destroying its nature — a beautiful type of the Incarnation. That same Lord revealed the Law to Moses on Sinai. Later, in the final O Antiphon, he will be called Legifer noster, our Lawgiver. I chose one passage from Deuteronomy to illustrate the “outstretched arm” reference, but the Old Testament teems with such references. While, in the Old Testament, the outstretched arm is clearly an anthropomorphism used to illustrate God’s power, in the Gospels we see the Man-God literally redeem us with arms stretched out on the Cross, to which His “strong hands” are nailed.

III. O Radix Jesse

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 Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry.”

Biblical references:

  • “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.” —Isaias (Isaiah) 11:1
  • “In that day the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech, and his sepulchre shall be glorious.” —Isaias (Isaiah) 11:10
  • “He shall sprinkle many nations, kings shall shut their mouth at him: for they to whom it was not told of him, have seen: and they that heard not, have beheld.” —Isaias (Isaiah) 52:15

Notice this is the first mention of the Gentiles, those who will “seek” the One whose sepulcher will be made “glorious” by His Resurrection. This is a theme that will continue and grow in the remaining antiphons. Jesse was the father of King David and is therefore a lineal ancestor of Our Lord. The medieval artistic renderings of the “Jesse Tree” owe their origin to this passage in Isaias. So does the beautiful Marian hymn “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming,” a German hymn of unknown origin, popularized in Michael Praetorius’ harmonized version and sung beautifully here. The reference to kings shutting their mouths might be curious to us in a democratic age. In the presence of the king, all shut their mouths out of respect. In the presence of the “King of Kings,” even kings shut their mouths. And the plural reference to “kings” in Isaias implies that Gentile kings, who were many in number, would respect the Royal figure of the Messias.

IV. O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

“O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.”

Biblical references:

  • “And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open.” —Isaias 22:22
  • “The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen.” —Isaias (Isaiah) 9:2
  • The same text is quoted in Matthew 4:11-16, after the temptation in the desert: “And leaving the city Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capharnaum on the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim; That it might be fulfilled which was said by Isaias the prophet: Land of Zabulon and land of Nephthalim, the way of the sea beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people that sat in darkness, hath seen great light: and to them that sat in the region of the shadow of death, light is sprung up.”

The passage from Isaias 22:22 shows the authority of the Messias to bind and loose, something He delegates to His first minister, the Pope (as He did, in context, to the kings and priests of the Old Law). The key was worn as a badge on a man’s shoulder, as a symbol of his authority, hence the Messianic statement in Isaias 9:6 that “the government is upon his shoulder.” Galilee was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” because it was the meeting place of the Jewish and Gentile world, bordering, as it did, the nation we know as Lebanon — the only Gentile land Jesus visited during His public ministry. Those Gentiles, trapped in idolatry, were dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death. Our Lord’s residing in Galilee in fulfillment of prophecy both heralded the Gentile Church and occasioned His being despised by the Jewish authorities of Judea. Note the “Gentile” theme continuing and growing stronger in this antiphon.

V. O Oriens

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

“O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!”

Biblical references:

  • “And thou shalt speak to him, saying: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: BEHOLD A MAN, THE ORIENT IS HIS NAME: and under him shall he spring up, and shall build a temple to the Lord.” —Zacharias (Zechariah) 6:12
  • “But unto you that fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health in his wings: and you shall go forth, and shall leap like calves of the herd.” —Malachias (Malachi) 4:2
  • (Another reference to Isaias 9:2, quoted above.)

The Messias here is prophesied as the “rising sun.” The passage in Zacharias immediately pertains to an Aaronic priest named Jesus, who is clearly a type of our Jesus. Oriens literally means both “east” and “sunrise” in Latin, thus this text is one of many in support of the traditional “ad orientem” worship of all the traditional rites of the Church.

VI. O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

“O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!”

Biblical references:

  • “The sceptre shall not be taken away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till he comes that is to be sent, and he shall be the expectation of nations.” —Genesis 49:10
  • “And again Isaias saith: There shall be a root of Jesse; and he that shall rise up to rule the Gentiles, in him the Gentiles shall hope. —Romans 15:12 (The Apostle is quoting Isaias 11, which we saw in O Radix Jesse.)
  • “And I will move all nations: AND THE DESIRED OF ALL NATIONS SHALL COME: and I will fill this house with glory: saith the Lord of hosts. —Aggeus (Haggai) 2:8
  • “Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Behold I will lay a stone in the foundations of Sion, a tried stone, a corner stone, a precious stone, founded in the foundation. He that believeth, let him not hasten.” —Isaias 28:16
  • “The stone which the builders rejected; the same is become the head of the corner.” —Psalm 117:22 (Jesus quotes this to His enemies in Matt. 21:42.)
  • “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in his flesh.” —Ephesians 2:14

Aggeus is writing explicitly of the Old-Testament Temple. Jesus is the Corner-stone of the New Temple, the Church. In His Mystical Body, He removes the partition wall that separated Jew from non-Jew in the old Temple. If we keep reading for a couple of verses in the prophesy of Aggeus, by the way, we come to verse ten: “Great shall be the glory of this last house more than of the first, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place I will give peace, saith the Lord of hosts.” It was well-known that the second Temple, of which Aggeus writes, was not as glorious as the first (see 1 Esdras [Ezra] 3:12 and Aggeus [Haggai] 2:4). It would be filled with glory “more than the first” precisely because Jesus Christ, the Promised One and Lord of that Temple, would enter into it. Notice here an even stronger mention of the Gentiles: the Messias is now their King.

VII. O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

“O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!”

Biblical reference:

  • “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” —Isaias (Isaiah) 7:14

The Messias being the King of the Gentiles has been mentioned earlier. Now, He is also their “lawgiver,” that is, a new Moses. He is not only the longing of the nations (already mentioned), but the salvation of the nations. And He is the “Lord our God”: This is the only O Antiphon which applies the first person possessive pronoun to Christ. He is not just thus-and-such of Israel or thus-and-such of the Gentiles, but He is “the Lord our God,” which puts something of an exclamation point on this last of the antiphons.

* * * * * * *

I hope that my little offering helps to bring out the richness and beauty of these sacred texts for the reader who has graciously read this far. May the Church’s sacred liturgy enkindle in all her children an intense desire for holiness — that hunger and thirst for justice that Jesus promises to satiate!

One final note: Advent is a preparation not only for Christmas but also for Our Lord’s Second Coming in power and majesty. The O Antiphons can be interpreted according to this eschatological reality to which we must all look forward. Thus, as we meditate on the most merciful coming of the Divine Infant, we can also prepare ourselves for “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31, Mal. 4:5), when He returns as our Judge.

O Antiphons (O Clavis is shown here) in a 14th-century antiphonal. Antiennes de l’Avent, Maître du Méliacin Antiphonaire dominicain. Ordre des Prêcheurs . Par Castorepollux, Ordre des prêcheurs. CC BY-SA 4.0.