What is an Antiphon? An antiphon is a verse or phrase sung or recited aloud or read silently before and after a Psalm or Canticle during the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. The text is often a direct quote from Scripture, or a brief reflection on a Scripture text, or a verse pertaining to the feast day, the liturgical season, or the saint of the day. An antiphon provides a spiritual context to be kept in mind for the duration of the Psalm or Canticle in much the same way that a mystery of the rosary is kept in mind during the recitation of the Hail Marys.
O Antiphons. The O Antiphons, also known as the Greater Antiphons, are a set of seven separate antiphons, each beginning with an “O,” and followed by a title or special attribute of the Christ-child whose birth will be commemorated on Christmas. The O Antiphons were written in Latin and drawn from texts from the prophet Isaiah regarding the long-awaited Messiah. The author, date, and place of composition all remain unknown, but the antiphons were known to exist by the late Fifth Century and were in widespread use by the Eighth Century.
Late Advent Liturgical Use. The O Antiphons are used at Vespers for the seven-day period from December 17 to December 23. They are used to introduce and conclude the Gospel Canticle, the Canticle of Mary or the Magnificat, the lovely prayer first offered by the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk 1:46-55) and offered each day at Evening Prayer.
The “O” Introduction. Each antiphon begins with a short O phrase that reveals an aspect of the identity of the newborn Son of the Most High whose kingdom will never end. December 17 begins O Sapientia, O Wisdom; followed by 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, O God with Us. After the opening statement, each antiphon concludes with a short prayer of petition.
December 17. “[O] Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation” (see Isaiah 11:2; 28:29).
December 18. “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain; come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free” (see Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22).
December 19. “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid” (see Isaiah 11:1,10).
December 20. “O Key of David, O royal power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom” (see Isaiah 22:22; 9:6).
December 21. “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (see Isaiah 9:1).
December 22. “O King of all nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you have fashioned from the dust” (see Isaiah 2:4; 9:5).
December 23. “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God” (see Isaiah 7:14).