The O Antiphons are not merely representative of promises made. They are also a celebration of promises kept.
As the days shorten and the nights become the longest of the year, many Christians pray what are called the O Antiphons. They are called O Antiphons because they all begin with the expression O (or “oh,” if you please). Starting on the 17th of December and going until Christmas Eve, these Antiphons are small opening and closing prayers before the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), which are prayed daily during evening prayer. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and some other Christians use the O Antiphons.
Going back to the 8th century and perhaps earlier, each antiphon takes a phrase from the Hebrew Bible and applies it to the Messiah, whose birth Christians are preparing to celebrate. Many of the titles are taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah. One of the most skillful and beautiful poets of the Hebrew Bible, many of his lines are sung in Händel’s Messiah.
Each day a different aspect of the Messiah is highlighted. The antiphons start with O Wisdom on the first evening and end with O Emmanuel on Christmas Eve. In the earliest centuries of Christianity it was popular to refer to Christ as the Wisdom of the Father, paralleling his title as Word of God. Emmanuel in Hebrew simply means “God (is) with us,” seen as both a promise and a reality. In the days in between we hear Adonay (Hebrew for “Lord”), Root of Jesse, Key to the House of David, Radiant Dawn and King of all Nations (not clearly found in the Hebrew Bible and presented here as śar šalôm, “Prince of Peace,” from Isaiah 9:6).
It could be the ancient beauty of the titles, it could be the cold, lengthening nights, it could be the nature of Christmas or it could be all of the above. In any case, the O Antiphons bring an unusual serenity with them that I for one find most welcome as “holiday preparations” get more and more frenzied.
For Christians the O Antiphons are not merely representative of promises made. They are also a celebration of promises kept. They connect us with the past and point to a blessed future. I have always found them a wonderful preparation for Christmas — joyful and beautiful — and a good antidote for the madness we often experience at Christmastime.
Rev. Elias D. Mallon is a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. His articles appear regularly in America and ONE magazines. He is the external affairs officer for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).