O Emmanuel: Meditations on the O Antiphons

Last year I wrote a series of posts on the O Antiphons, intending to do one per day until Christmas. I got through four and posted a belated O Oriens and O Rex Gentium, but the seventh, O Emmanuel, I never completed. This year, living in Eastern Europe, I’ve not been getting the usual sights and sounds of the Christmas season. Stripping away the family and commercial jollity gives a different feel to these last weeks of December, and I doubt the Georgian festivities surrounding Eastern Christmas (January 7) will wholly replace it. But it is still a good time to meditate on these traditional Latin hymns, as midwinter brings in the new year.

* * *

The seventh O Antiphon is to Emmanuel (God with us).

O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio gentium, et salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.

O God with us, our king and lawgiver,
the nations’ expectation, and their savior:
come to save us,
Lord, our God.

We conclude Advent with an antiphon to Christ Emmanuel, whose sign embodies the focal truth of the incarnation: that God is with us.

There seems little to say about this antiphon. It is brief and direct, summing up the ones that came before. We may note a slight shift from the previous verse: Christ is now not merely the nations’ desire, but their expectation. Christ is in the Virgin’s swelling womb; in the fullness of time, he will appear. Still there is a double significance; we sing the antiphon in light of the parousia (coming) for which we wait, as Christ’s Body is built up on earth and eagerly looks forward to its birth under a new sun.

But we should not miss the beautiful simplicity of this antiphon, which proclaims Christ as “our king and lawgiver,” our savior, and most importantly, Emmanuel.

Continue reading

O Rex Gentium: Meditations on the O Antiphons


The sixth O Antiphon is to the King of Nations.

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O king of nations, and their desire,
and cornerstone, who makes them one,
come, and save humankind,
which you formed from clay.

This antiphon follows the theme of triumph begun in the last one. If O Oriens shows how the incarnation prefigured the cosmic dawn of Christ’s resurrection, O Rex Gentium depicts the ascended Christ enthroned over the world. He has taken up not only David’s scepter but the scepter of heaven, subjecting all powers in heaven and earth to himself.

Three messianic titles appear in the first two lines: “king of nations,” “desire of nations,” and “cornerstone, making them one” (cf. Jeremiah 10:7, Haggai 2:7, and Ephesians 2:20 respectively). These images together suggest the fullness of his presence: he is over us as king, he is with us as beloved, and he is at our foundation as cornerstone. He binds us to the Godhead, to his incarnate person, and to one another.

Continue reading

O Oriens: Meditations on the O Antiphons

Travel, jet lag, and holiday activities predictably demolished my plans to keep up with Advent 2014. So now, after Epiphany, I resume my series on the O Antiphons.

The fifth O Antiphon is to the Rising Dawn.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

O rising one, splendor of eternal light,
and sun of justice:
come, and illuminate those sitting in darkness,
and the shadow of death.

This antiphon shows Christ to be light and enlightener. O Clavis David showed us his descent. Now the image reverses, and we see that the descent of Christ in the incarnation is also an ascent.

The Latin oriens is the root of our word “oriental.” It is literally “rising [one],” usually indicating the east, the dawn, or the rising sun. Nevertheless, there is a tradition of rendering oriens here “morning star,” which is within the range of possible meanings, as in the Old English poem based on this antiphon, Eala earendel. The morning star, Venus, is the harbinger of the dawn; Christ takes this name for himself in Revelation 22:16 (see also 2 Peter 1:19 and Revelation 2:28).

Continue reading

O Clavis David: Meditations on the O Antiphons

The fourth O Antiphon is to the Key of David.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel;
who opens, and no one closes;
who closes, and no one opens:
come, and lead the fettered ones out from the prison-house,
those sitting in darkness, and the shadow of death.

This is the second Davidic reference, and an answer to the previous antiphon’s plea for freedom. Its central image is drawn from Isaiah 22:22 (quoted almost verbatim in lines 2-3) and Revelation 3:7.

Nevertheless, it is also one of the more difficult and obscure of Christ’s traditional titles. The original passage describes a transfer of authority from the master of Hezekiah’s palace to Eliakim, a man of the Lord’s choosing. Isaiah declares, “the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder.” The revelation to St. John states that Christ now possesses this key, and because of this a door that cannot be shut has been set before certain faithful Christians.

This is part of a network of opening/shutting/binding/loosing images in the scriptures. Perhaps the most notable instance, and probably a deliberate reference to Eliakim in Isaiah, is when Jesus promises Peter the keys of his kingdom, that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (See also Matthew 23:13 for a negative use of this imagery.)

These examples in mind, we see that the hymnist made a very interesting choice in how he concludes this antiphon. The language of the key, to any early Christian, clearly points to the authority of Christ, in and by whom the Church has power to govern its members and to make binding dogmatic decisions. The scepter is obviously a symbol of rule as well.

Continue reading

O Radix Jesse: Meditations on the O Antiphons

Sr. Angsar Holmberg, CSJThe third O Antiphon is to the Root of Jesse.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who stands as an ensign of the peoples,
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will entreat,
come to free us, refuse now to be hindered.

This antiphon hails Christ as the Root of Jesse. This time, it is not Christ’s divinity that is on display, but his messiahship. The great Wisdom of the Cosmos and Lord of Israel is shown as member and head of the royal house of David.

The first line of this antiphon is drawn from Isaiah 11:10, the second from Isaiah 52:15. Isaiah 11 depicts the “root of Jesse” flowering again; the House of David, whose degraded descendants would lose the throne within two centuries, would produce an heir on whom rested the Divine Spirit. This anointed king would rule with justice and turn Zion into a new Eden, and all the Gentiles would be drawn to him out of their own sin and desolation.

This title is an essentially human one, but not at odds with the previous portraits of his transcendent divinity. These successive antiphons embody the orthodox doctrine that Christ is wholly God and wholly Man. The Son, in assuming humanity, became a part of the same genetic House of David that he elected. Again, we see that the Son in the incarnation has come to inhabit the house he prepared through time. Millennia of longing for the divine were finally answered in a form that could be touched and seen.

Continue reading

O Adonai: Meditations on the O Antiphons

The second O Antiphon is to Adonai (Lord).

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush,
and gave him the Law on Sinai:
come to ransom us with outstretched arm.

In this antiphon, Christ is addressed as God of Israel, the Old Testament Adonai himself. Like the previous antiphon, it depicts Christ in his divinity.

But whereas the mystery of Christ Sophia is manifest in all creation, Christ Adonai is revealed in history. Christ Adonai is the Son in the unity of the Godhead, but also the particular god of Israel, shepherd of his people, lord and lawgiver. He is He-Who-Is, YHWH, and one whose “outstretched arm” is mighty to redeem.

This antiphon celebrates the second stage of revelation, when the source of all being gave Israel his name in the burning bush, and the Law in a cloud of glory on Sinai.

Continue reading

O Sapientia: Meditations on the O Antiphons

The O Antiphons comprise a liturgical chain of ancient Latin Christian poetry. Their purpose is to tell us who is incarnate as we prepare for the feast of Christ’s birth. They are rich with the messianic imagery of the scriptures, each structured around a title of Christ, respectively, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Dawn, King of Nations, and Emmanuel.

We do not know exactly how old these antiphons are, but the evidence suggests sixth century at the latest, and quite possibly earlier. In the Western Church, they are still used at vespers with the Magnificat for the last seven days of Advent (December 17-23, though many Anglicans follow the English tradition of using an eighth antiphon to the Virgin on the 23rd, and thus start a day early). The Christmas hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel is an adaptation of the whole set.

I believe these antiphons present us with a complete orthodox Christology. I believe they also image a kind of cosmic descent, illuminating various aspects of the mystery of the incarnation. Meditating on the O Antiphons may be helpful in preparing to celebrate the coming of our Lord.

Continue reading