In the final days of Advent preparations for the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, special antiphons are provided to be sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers each evening. These antiphons, known as the Great “O” antiphons (for the beginning word of each) begin on December 16 (in English usage from ancient times) or December 17 (in Roman usage) and continue through December 23. The first seven are petitions to the Savior, using some of his scriptural titles – Old Testament prophetic images and New Testament description – and the eighth (in English usage) is addressed to the blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
The authorship and origin of the antiphons is unknown, but they were introduced into the Roman liturgy by the eight century. Some historians believe that they were familiar to Boethius (who died in 525), as evidenced by a passage in his De Consolatione Philosophiae.
In monasteries in the Middle Ages, the “O” antiphons were distributed among the monks as part of their duties and were sung in order of rank: The abbot sang “O Sapientia”, the Prior “O Adonai”, etc.
The first metrical version of the antiphons appeared in Cologne in 1710, and John Mason Neale’s translation in the Hymnal Noted of 1851 was the first English version. The Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a paraphrase based on this translation.
O Sapientia – O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily, and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence. (December 16/17)
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God [Mt. 4:4]. O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all [Ps. 104:24]. Thy word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path [Ps. 119:105].
O Adonai – O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, who appearedst in the Bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gavest him the law of Sinai: come and deliver us with an outstretched arm. (December 17/18)
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed…[Ex. 3:2]. Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you [Is. 35:4].
O Radix Jesse – O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek; Come and deliver us, and tarry not. (December 18/19)
In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious [Is. 11:10]. The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope” [Rm. 15:12].
O Clavis David – O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest, and no man shutteth, and shuttest, and no man openeth: Come and bring the prisoner out of the prison-house, and him that sitteth in darkness, and the shadow of death. (December 19/20)
And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open [Is. 22:22]. The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind [Lk. 4:18].
O Oriens – O Day-spring, Brightness of light everlasting and Sun of rightesousness: Come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness, and the shadow of death. (December 20/21)
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has light shined [Is. 9:2]. To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us [Lk. 1:78].
O Rex gentium – O King of the nations, and their Desire, the Cornerstone, who makest both one: come and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay. (December 21/22)
Lift up your heads, O ye gates! And be lifted up, ye everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in [Ps. 24:7]. And they put over His head the accusation written against Him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” [Mt. 27:37]. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone [Ps. 118:22]. Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation…” [Is.28:16]. …having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone [Eph. 2:20].
O Emmanuel – O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God. (December 22/23)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [Is. 7:14]. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us” [Mt. 1:22, 23].
O Virgo virginum – O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery. (December 23)
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I know not a man?” [Lk. 1:34] Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you..[Zech. 9:9]. Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold your King is coming…” [Jn. 12:14, 15].