The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil.
The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.
THE GREAT ANTIPHON FOR THURSDAY 17th DECEMBER
The family, together, say the Great Antiphon, followed by The Magnificat, and repeat the Antiphon at the close of evening prayer, or Vespers. Maria Von Trapp, in her book, “Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family”, (Sophia, 1955/2018), at p. 33, suggested writing the O Antiphon for the day on a piece of white cardboard, and each day for the family meal they might be put in the centre of the table, and afterwards added to the family’s prayer.”
O SAPIENTA, quae ex ore Altissimi produisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come and teach us the way of prudence.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God, my Saviour. For He hath regarded the humility of His handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is from generation unto generations upon them that fear Him. He hath shewed might in His arm. He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts. He hath cut down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich He hath sent empty away.He hath received Israel, His servant, being mindful of His mercy. As He spoke to our father, Abraham, and his seed, forever.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum, et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo, quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.Ecce enim ex hocd beatam me dicent omnes generationes, quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est, et sanctum Nomen eius, et misericordia eieus in progenies et progenies timentibus eum.Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente codi sui; deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles; ensurientes implevit bonis et divites dimusit inanes.Suscepit Israel purum suum, recordatus misericordiae, sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
[Isaiah had prophesied, The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2-3), and Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom. (Isaiah 28:29).]
THE GREAT ANTIPHON FOR FRIDAY 18th DECEMBER
Each of the ‘O’ or Great Antiphons highlights a title for the coming Messias. Each, further, refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messias.
The family, together, say the Great Antiphon, followed by The Magnificat, and repeat the Antiphon at the close of evening prayer, or Vespers.
O ADONAI, et dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne falmmae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redemendum nos in brachio extento.
O ADONAI, and leader of the house of Israel, who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and didst give to him the law on Sinai: come and with an outstretched arm redeem us.
[Isaiah had prophesied, but He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the lands afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. (Isaiah 11:4-5); and Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us. (Isaiah 33:22).]