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The great "O" antiphons

                                 The Great “O” Antiphons of Advent

The Great “O” Antiphons of Advent thumbnail

     William J. McGarry S.J.

From December 17 to 23 the liturgy has seven antiphons which begin with O and are addressed before and after the Magnificat to the Lord King of the Advent….

In their magnificent yet simple beauty the Great O’s are the quintessence of the Advent liturgy. Their language bears the weight of God’s eternity and mercy. They are a poignant cry of the soul of the people of Advent; they address God by the most compelling and tender of divine names, and they always end with an intense COME, VENI. All have the same structure, the O of apostrophe, and imperative of appeal. And while the imperatives of the season are often joyous and clamorous, these last appeals to God seem to read as if the iron of our misery is in our very blood. For though even in other parts of the liturgy of the last week our optimism continues and our hope is bright, in the solemn ceremonial of the evening Magnificat we are soberly acknowledging that our dire wretchedness can be remedied only by omnipotent mercifulness.

Only one of the Great O’s is read each day of our approach to Christmas. The effect of this is noticeable, for we definitely feel a growing intensity as each evening passes. We seem to be making a forward step and to be covering infinite distances from eternity to Bethlehem. There is a climatic order in these antiphons. In the first, O Sapientia, we take a backward flight into the recesses of eternity to address Wisdom, the Word of God. In the second, O Adonai, we have leaped from eternity to the time of Moses and the Law of Moses (about 1400 B.C.). In the third, O Radix Jesse, we have come to the time when God was preparing the line of David (about 1100 B.C.). In the fourth, O Clavis David, we have come to the year 1000. In the fifth, O Oriens we see that the line of David is elevated so that the peoples may look on a rising star in the east, and hence in the sixth, O Rex Gentium, we know that He is king of all the world of man. This brings us to the evening before the vigil, and before coming to the town limits of Bethlehem, we salute Him with the last Great O, O Emmanuel, God-with-us. We have travelled a long distance and have waited long, but at Bethlehem we are to find the Little One who is Emmanuel, God of God and Light of Light, and yet God with us.

From He Cometh (2011)

 Marcellino D’Ambrosio

These moving “O Antiphons” were apparently composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah, which looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of scriptural images. The great “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung….

In Latin: the first letters of 






    Rex, and 


in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS.  These can be understood as the words of Christ, responding to his people’s plea, saying  “Tomorrow I will be there.”

From The Crossroads Initiative (2014)