Q: I’ve read that the Alleluia verses before the Gospel reading at Mass during the week before Christmas are based on some ancient liturgical texts called the “O antiphons.” Can you please say something about them?
A: The Alleluia verses you mention are indeed based on the “O antiphons,” also called the “Great Antiphons.” These gems of liturgical song are refrains, like bookends, for the “Magnificat,” the Gospel Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55).
In his book “Seven Bells to Bethlehem,” Oliver Treanor says that “Like garlands round an icon, the ‘O’ antiphons adorn the Mother while adorning the Son.” They run from Dec. 17 through Dec. 23. They are known as the “O” antiphons because each one begins with the interjection “O” and invocation of a different messianic title for Jesus Christ, followed by an acclamation and a supplication.
How did they start?
When did the O antiphons originate? No one knows for sure. Early in the ninth century, Amalarius of Metz said they were composed by an anonymous author who probably lived in the eighth century, which means that he really didn’t know. These antiphons may date from an earlier century, maybe the seventh century, and maybe were originally used at Lauds (morning prayer) to accompany the Gospel canticle used at the hour, the “Benedictus,” also from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:68-79).
Somehow they got attached to the “Magnificat.” Maybe people’s voices were better in the evening — just my speculation. They were very popular in the Middle Ages and were in use nearly everywhere. Their vivid, biblical, Christ-centered imagery appealed to the religious imagination.
Although Advent has sometimes been seen as a penitential season, a winter Lent, the Os marked an occasion for rejoicing. In abbeys and cathedrals they were sung on the solemn tone used for great feasts, and their intonation was reserved for dignitaries, starting with the abbot or dean and continuing with the prior or cellarer, and so forth.
Moreover, on the night on which he “kept his O,” the official was expected to provide something of a feast for the community and give a gift to each member. A few surviving invoices for these parties attest to the custom. — a good custom, worth reviving, I think, no matter how good the superior’s singing voice might be. Also, the largest bell of the monastery or cathedral was rung during the singing of the O antiphons and the “Magnificat” — hence the title of Oliver Treanor’s book, “Seven Bells to Bethlehem.”
O Come Emmanuel
The O antiphons contain the theologies of both comings of Christ — first and final — that give Advent its basic theme, and they are all based to some extent on the ancient cry that echoed around the liturgical assemblies of first-century Christians: “Marana tha!” “Our Lord, come!” Each antiphon as it draws closer to Christmas becomes more personal and less remote in time.
The reformed Lectionary for Mass following the Second Vatican Council uses these antiphons as the Alleluia verse at the Eucharist on the weekdays immediately before Christmas, thus making them more accessible to worshipers. The English texts of these Alleluia verses differ from the texts for the “Magnificat” in the Roman Liturgy of the Hours and they are rearranged a bit. For example, “O Emmanuel” appears on Dec. 21, not on its customary date of Dec. 23.
The most well-known “offspring” of the antiphons is the Advent hymn “Veni, veni Emmanuel.” The origins of this hymn are disputed. John Mason Neale, who translated it into English as the familiar “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” claimed that it dates from the 12th century. The hymn uses five of the seven antiphons in the following order: 7, 3, 5, 4, 2. I have found the singing of this hymn during the Communion procession to be a very powerful blending of text and action: we ask the Lord Jesus to come to us, and he does, in holy Communion.
“O” can express many emotions: surprise, fear, sadness, joy or pain. The “Os” of the O antiphons express our awe and wonder before God’s saving deeds. They are the Os of the Spirit groaning within and empowering us to seek God’s reign with heart and voice and breath.
The O antiphons have been described as a mosaic of the Old Testament, for they include Wisdom literature, the Law (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), and prophecy. Their themes are messianic, stressing the brightness of hope. Jesus is invoked under a series of titles taken for the most part from the prophet Isaiah in what seems to be an intentional sequence. Perhaps one can feel the growing intensity as each of the seven evenings passes, for these antiphons beg Christ with increasing urgency to come to save his people.
The antiphons move historically from the beginning, before creation, all the way to Bethlehem:
First, with “O Sapienta” (“O Wisdom”) we take a backward flight into the recesses of eternity to address Wisdom, the Word of God. In the second, “O Adonai” (“O Lord”), we have leaped from eternity to the time of Moses and the exodus from Egypt (about 1250 B.C.).
In the third, “O Radix Jesse” (“O Root of Jesse” — Jesse was the father of King David), we have come to the time when God was preparing for the line of King David (about 1100 B.C.). In the fourth, “O Clavis David” (“O Key of David”), we have come to the year 1000.
In the fifth, “O Oriens” (“O Radiant Dawn”), we see that the line of David is elevated so that the peoples from afar may look on the rising star of the east, and hence, in the sixth, “O Rex Gentium” (“O King of the Nations”), we acknowledge him to be king of all the world.
This brings us to the evening before the vigil of Christmas, and before coming to the town limits of Bethlehem, we salute in the last great O, “O Emmanuel” — “God with us.”
It is interesting to note that the Latin titles given to Jesus form an acrostic, a word formed from the initial letters. When the first letter of each title is read backwards, starting with Emmanuel, they form two Latin words, “Ero Cras,” which means, “I will be [there] tomorrow.”
- Rex Gentium
- Clavis David
- Radix Jesse
Benedictines probably arranged these antiphons in this way, and this is just the kind of thing that the medieval mind loved. But these poetic texts can become beloved road signs for us along our way to Christmas. Merry Christmas to you all!
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.