The Great “O” Antiphons are sung at Vespers each evening during the final week of Advent.

Many congregations will be familiar with them in an adapted form, as the verses of the hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel,” although a couple of the antiphons are usually omitted in this setting. The antiphons are rich in Old Testament allusions, expressing the yearning of the people who had so long waited in darkness, to see a great light.


17th  “O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence!

            Jesus is the Word uttered by the Father, the creative Word, the Father’s own perfect self-expression. He is also the Wisdom that laid the foundations of the Universe, ordering all things “from beginning to end”, from Alpha to Omega, from the Big Bang to the Apocalypse. Obviously the Creator has acted mightily, hurling the galaxies out into space-time. But He has also created with sweetness the petals on the rose, the clouds and the sunset, the face of a friend.

Come, Wisdom, and teach us prudence. Prudence has nothing to do with prudishness or cowardly hesitation. It is one of the four cardinal virtues or strengths. It is applied judgement, genuine wisdom in practice, right reason applied to concrete situations.


18th  “O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him Your Law. O come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!”


            Adonai was the Hebrew title “Lord” for Yahweh, whose name they dared not pronounce. The root ‘adon signifies authority and the power to command. It thus suggests the Kingship of Yahweh Who rules and delivers the Law to Moses. The Law is an expression of the Divine Will. It stipulates how the people are to please Yahweh, and how they are to live well and in harmony with each other. In a partial sense it brings health and salvation. Whoever lives by the law of the Lord is spared many of the griefs which fall upon the sinner.

            The “outstretched arm” reminds us of Moses, stretching out his arm at God’s command to divide the waters of the Red Sea. God showed his power so forcefully against the Hebrew nation’s enemies during the Exodus. Now He will manifest His power to redeem in a new way, through the incarnate Jesus.


19th  “O Root of Jesse, You stand as an ensign for the nations; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. O come to deliver us and do not delay.”


            Jesse was the father of King David, whose rule was forever looked back upon as the Golden Age of Israel. The text is a mixture of verses from Isaiah. Radix can be translated root, stock or stump. In the hymn we have “O come thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny.”

From the stump of Jesse will spring a twig, a bud, a new branch from the old line – the Davidic Messiah. Jesus is born of David’s line, through his legal father, Joseph. He will be a standard, a sign, raised up before the eyes of the nations: “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all men to myself.” From the cross He will intercede for forgiveness for the sins of the entire world. He will be a source of healing for all who turn to him in prayer. On the day He returns in glory, the kings and emperors of the earth will stand aghast, amazed and enthralled.


20th  “O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel: You open and no man closes; You close and no man opens. O come and deliver him from the chains of prison, who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

            Christ is the Key of David who opens the secrets and prophecies of the Old Testament. The full meaning of the Old Testament is laid open in the New.

In Isaiah 22 we read of Hilkiah, the just steward, to whom God will give the keys of the royal household, removing them from Shebna, the unworthy majordomo. “I will lay the key of David upon his shoulder. What he opens no-one shall close, what he closes no-one will open.”  Hence we speak of “the power of the keys” meaning the conferral of supreme authority. Jesus made use of the same symbolism when he entrusted the keys of the Kingdom to St Peter.

            Who sits enchained in the darkness? Every sinner, but especially the pagan nations, enslaved by Satan in ignorance, cruelty and vice.  They know neither the merciful Father nor his well-beloved Son, who will die to set them free.


21st  “O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadows of death.”

            Here on the shortest day of the year, as the pagans gather at Stonehenge for the winter solstice, it is Christ whom we address as the “Rising Dawn”, the symbol of light, the true “Sol invictus”, the unconquerable Sun. It is He who will disperse the spiritual darkness and coldness of this world. He will bring in the full and eternal sense what the sun brings in only a physical manner: life, light, warmth, joy and health.

            The light Eternal represents the Father. Jesus is the true Radiance of the Father’s glory. He is lumen de lumine, light from light, as we say every Sunday in the Creed.

            Sun of Justice: the rays of righteousness shine forth from his wings. God’s justice is not simply a juridical justice of the Old Bailey variety. It is the Divine holiness and righteousness which purifies and fills with goodness everything with which it comes into contact. It burns up all evil or harmful influences. Nothing vile or mean can withstand this consuming fire of God’s holiness. Perforce creation will one day brought into total harmony with the Divine Will, when the rays of Divine Justice will fill all that exists: the blessed will enter into full union with the most Holy Trinity, but to the wicked, the Divine Justice will be as the flames of hell.


22nd  “O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two into one [Jews and Gentiles]: Come and save the poor man whom You fashioned out of clay.”

            This antiphon highlights the universal role of Our Lord as the Saviour and Ruler of all peoples. He alone can fill their yearnings for the Holy One. All tribes of the earth have their varied cults and intuitions of the supernatural. They hunger for that spiritual fulfilment which, ultimately, is to be found only in Christ Himself. He is the Desired of all nations.

He is born not exclusively for the Jews, but inclusively for peoples of the whole earth, for the Gentiles near and far. In Christ the barriers of race and colour and language are broken. We become equal brothers and sisters, one in the Lord of all.

            The cornerstone appears in Ps 28:16: “Behold, I lay a stone as the foundation of Sion, a cornerstone precious and firmly set; if one believes, he will not be shaken.”  Elsewhere Jesus referred to Himself as the cornerstone: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone: this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” (Mt 21:42)

            The last phrase calls to mind poor Adam, and reminds us all that “we are dust, and unto dust we shall return.” How can a creature of clay achieve its own redemption? It cannot. For Lord, we are powerless. In your merciful condescension, come and save us!


23rd  “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God!” 

            Today we sing the last of the O-Antiphons. Tomorrow we shall have the first vespers of the Nativity.

The name Emmanuel signifies the climax: God is with us. God is coming to us, born in Bethlehem, to live in our midst. Promised long ago, expected for centuries, the hopes of the Chosen people are about to be fulfilled. God has been faithful to His word.

In future God is not the remote God of the skies, the terrible and awesome Creator and Destroyer of the stars. He has enfleshed himself of the Virgin Mary, He has revealed to us His kindly heart, His willingness to stoop low in order to raise us up. He has pitched his tent among us.(Jn 1:14)


A final observation for those who like word-puzzles. In Latin the first words of the antiphons are Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, Emmanuel respectively. Read the initial capital letters backwards and they give: “Ero cras”, meaning “I will be there tomorrow,” – a suitable message for the week leading up to the Nativity.