Brief History of the “O Antiphons”

As a very dear friend of mine just posted yesterday’s “O Antiphon“, he asked me to do the daily translation of each as they get posted. Hence, for those that are unfamiliar with antiphons and the “O Antiphons” in particular, I’ll try to provide a little background.

An antiphon is a short prayer recited before the “Magnificat“. The Magnificat is Mary’s praise hymn, directly taken from Luke 1:46-55 , which, depending on the denomination, is recited either during the Vespers or during the Matins.

So what are Vespers and Matins ? In the medieval monastic world, daily life is organized around a set number of community prayer and worship times. St. Benedict really set the original rules that are still being observed by many monastic orders of today. The schedule starts the day with the Vigils, at the unimaginable early hour of 4:00 AM, followed by the Lauds or Matins. The day slowly winds down with the Vespers which are conducted in the evening, usually right before the evening meal. Right before bedtime, the Complines are observed after which it’s lights out around 9:00 PM or so.

Back to the antiphons. As mentioned, they are short prayers, chants or hymns recited prior to the Magnificat during the Vespers in many liturgies, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc. In Eastern Orthodox liturgy, the Magnificat is actually recited or sung during the matins, and I am not sure whether they precede it with an antiphon or not.

Antiphons tend to focus on the time of year, the season or the special Church calendar celebrations at hand. During advent, there are seven specific antiphons, each starting with “O” followed by a title attributed to Christ as based on the prohpecies of Isaiah on the coming of Christ. Here is a short list of the seven:

O     Sapientia             (Oh Wisdom)
O    
A
donai                         (Oh Lord)
O    
R
adix Jesse             (Oh Root of Jesse)
O    
C
lavis David             (Oh Key of David)
O    
O
riens                         (Oh Rising Sun)
O    
R
ex Gentium             (Oh King of the World)
O    
Emmanuel             (Oh God with Us)

The order of these is quite important as they spell out (in reverse order) E-R-O   C-R-A-S, meaning “Tomorrow, I will come”. The congregation recites one each day, starting on December 17th, ending with “Oh Emmanuel” on December 23rd. It is interesting to note that the verses of the Christmas hymn “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” is actually based on these O Antiphons as each verse of the famous hymn recaptures the same attributes of Christ in Wisdom, Root of Jesse, etc. I suggest you google the lyrics to that hymn since it would make this article way too long.

In closing, some families have used these seven antiphons, celebrating and anticipating the coming of Christ to build family traditions. Each family member would recite that day’s antiphon and give his/her siblings a small gift.

As Abraham will post the antiphons on his Facebook page, I will provide the daily translation and a short background to each. So follow us on Facebook if you would like to learn more about each.

Ackowledgements and for more information:
Fr, William Saunders, What are the “O Antiphons”
Catholic Culture: The O Antiphons
The Crossroads Initiative: The great “O Antiphons of Advent”

 

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2 comments

  1. Excellent post Michael. Great to know the history of the O Antiphons. I am only beginning to discover (rediscover? I did grow up in an Anglican/Presbyterian Church in India) the rich liturgical tradition of the church. Looking forward to your translations of the O Antiphons. Baylor University’s Christian Reflections journal had an article on the O Antiphons in their Advent edition. They also had English translations set to music.
    Abraham

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