The seven “O Antiphons” are prayers that come from the Breviary’s Vespers during the Octave before Christmas Eve (December 17-23), a time which is called the “Golden Nights.”
Each Antiphon begins with “O” and addresses Jesus with a unique title which comes from the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah. Each antiphon highlights a title for the Messiah. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah:
O Sapientia: “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.” Isaiah prophesied, “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom” (28:29).
O Adonai: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on mount Sinai: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” Isaiah prophesied, “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us” (33:22).
O Radix Jesse: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, 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.” Isaiah prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (11:1).
O Clavis 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.” Isaiah prophesied, I will place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open” (22:22).
O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Isaiah prophesied, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” (9:1).
O Rex Gentium: “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.” Isaiah had prophesied, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (9:5).
O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” Isaiah prophesied, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Remember, ‘Emmanuel’ means “God with us.”
Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel
The very lovely and familiar Advent hymn, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” is simply the “O” Antiphons set to music. When the antiphons are sung or recited in their traditional order in Latin, a reverse acrostic is formed:
Reading backward, the first letters of each title given to Christ read, ERO CRAS, Latin for ‘Tomorrow, I will come.’ Each day when we sing the “O Antiphons,” we address Christ with a different title, and say to Him, “Come!”
On the last day, December 23rd, we make our last plea for the return of “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” And when our song is complete, Emmanuel replies, “Ero cras,” “Tomorrow I will come.”
And thus we arrive, on December 24th, at Christ’s Mass.
You can sing along with “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” here: