The exact origin of the O Antiphons is not known; however, in the 6th Century, Boethius made passing reference to them in his writings, so, presumably, they were already part of the liturgy at that time. The importance of the “O Antiphons” is twofold. First, each one is a title for the Messiah. Secondly, each one references the prophecy of Isaiah foretelling His coming: this makes them particularly appropriate to be used in the season of Advent as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation and look forward to Christ’s second coming in glory.
It was Isaiah who wrote, “Look the young woman is with child and shall bare a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.” It is a verse we hear year after year at our carol services. Emmanuel, means God with us.
A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, form the Latin words: ERO CRAS. “Tomorrow I will be there.” O Sapientia: O Adonai: O Radix Jesse: O Clavis David: O Oriens: O Rex Gentium: O Emmanuel. The Ancient Great “O’s” are a message of hope and of of light shining in the darkness, which bring a special intensity to our Advent preparations. Their use continues today, and they were included in Common Worship Daily Prayer when it was published in 2005.
Each day in the week before Christmas, when the Magnificat is said or sung, one of the Antiphons is added at the beginning. These age-old words draw on a rich tapestry of scriptural titles for the long-awaited Messiah.
The preparation time of Advent is all about being ready. It is the time afforded us to put our lives in order, so we are ready to receive him. This is the moment for making sure that we are prepared not just to celebrate the incarnation, which the prophets foretold, but for the time which Jesus promised would come, when he will return in triumph and great glory.
A Prayer for Advent
God is light and our lives are judged in the light of God’s love. God is love and we look forward to the time when God’s will is done and the Kingdom will come.
God of all hope fill us with joy and peace; we trust you.
We pray that in the darkness of our times we may still be full of hope, looking for the coming of Christ in our world. Amen.
Jane Kraft is the Associate Area Dean of Sonning in the Diocese of Oxford and holds PTO.