Christmas Music Matters: The O Antiphons

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In the Western Christian Liturgical Tradition, shared by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others, December 17 marks the beginning of the use of the “O Antiphons.”

An Antiphon (from French antiphone or Medieval Latin antiphōna, from Ancient Greek ἀντίφωνα ‎(antíphōnaresponses, musical accords), neuter plural substantive of ἀντίφωνος ‎(antíphōnosconcordant) from ἀντί ‎(antíin return from Proto-Indo-European *h₂énti. Cognates include Sanskrit अन्ति ‎(ánti), Latin ante, Old Armenian ընդ ‎(ənd) and English and) + φωνή‎(phōnḗsound” from Proto-Indo-European *bʰoh₂neh₂, from *bʰeh₂- ‎to speak.) is a response sung around a central verse.

In this case, the O Antiphons are the responsaries sung with the Magnificat (the Canticle of Mary–Luke 1:46-55, in the East known as the Ode of the Theotokos) during Vespers (Evening Prayer). They are also used as the Alleluia Verse in the Eucharistic Liturgies on the corresponding days.

They begin on the evening of December 17. The Christian Liturgical Day begins at Sunset, just as the Jewish Day does. Each successive one meditates on another name for the Christ who is coming among us. I will give them here in their traditional order and format (there are others). It is likely that they date as far back as the 6th Century.

  • December 17: O Sapientia (Wisdom):

Latin:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.[8]

English:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
  • December 18: O Adonai (Lord):

Latin:

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.

English:

O Adonai, 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 and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Latin:

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

English:

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)

Latin:

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.

English:

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring):

Latin:

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

English:

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations):

Latin:

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

English:

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

Latin:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

English:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

There is an interesting textual consideration about the possible acrostic, Ero Cras:

The first letters of the titles taken backwards appear to form a Latin acrostic which translates to “Tomorrow, I will be [there]”, mirroring the theme of the antiphons. Father Saunders wrote, “According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, Tomorrow, I will come. Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, Tomorrow, I will come. So the O Antiphons not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.”http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/what-are-the.html

It is also easy to see how Mystics can derive inner meaning from these lovely verses.

There are many musical versions of the Antiphons.

Here are the Gregorian Chant versions. One example for today’s Antiphon:

Marc Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704) during the Baroque Era set them in shimmeringly beautiful versions:

I leave these for your meditations!

Merry Christmas!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

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