O Antiphons

Dec 21, 2021

Charles Hughes Huff, Ph.D.

The O Antiphons are antiphons for Vespers in the days leading up to Christmas, beginning December 17. O Come Emmanuel is well known due to the hymn, but each has been set musically many times, from Charpentier to Arvo Pärt. The first known references to these antiphons are medieval. Boethius seems to allude to O Sapientia in his Consolation of Philosophy in the 6th century. The medieval liturgist Amalarius also comments on them in the 8th century. Christ I, which opens the 10th century Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book takes its poetic form from these seven antiphons. For the liturgy of the hours, they are the culmination of the advent season, invitations building, O come by O come, to the mystery of the Incarnation.

  • 17 December: O Sapientia
    O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae. // O Wisdom, which came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end boldly and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Personified wisdom sits with God at the beginning of creation (Proverbs 8:22–31, Sirach 24:1–22, Wisdom 7:23–8:1). She rejoices before God and he delights in her. This image means both that God made the world on the principles of wisdom—wisdom which could be discovered, learned, and practiced—and that God remains somehow distinct from Wisdom through whom he made the world. In these texts, creation interweaves these two in a type of dance, frost and fire in the deep night. This very Wisdom invites the youthful to come feast with her, learn her ways, and grasp hold of life.

The Gospel of John takes up this theme by introducing (John 1) the logos in the stillness of Genesis 1 — in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God — all things came into being through him, and without him was not one thing made that was made.

O Sapienta addresses Jesus as Wisdom soaring from every part of the earth, gently and firmly setting all things into place. Wisdom is not an abstract concept, but an act “that ‘applies’ the universal truth to a concrete, particular situation, such that the former alone (the universal) is thus not the perfection of that concrete act. This is partly why one must imitate wise persons rather than simply define wisdom abstractly: there is no wisdom apart from a wise person, and there are no wise actions apart from the determinacy of the particular context within which wisdom is perfected.”[1]

This prayer asks Wisdom to incarnate, to teach us the expanse of the universe in concrete quotidian rhythms, to join the dance of Wisdom’s joy.

O Wisdom, come and delight our hearts with the joy of your creation, that we may encounter uncreated, inaccessible divine light in each other.

____

[1] Jordan Daniel Wood "The Lively God of Sergius Bulgakov: Reflections on The Sophiology of Death," Eclectic Orthodoxy Blog. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2021/12/15/the-lively-god-of-sergius-bulgakov-reflections-on-the-sophiology-of-death/?fbclid=IwAR2DWtibcbun9gNAVxZh7XJpFTP9qL7wTc6DeLoREIllzOGbuBKZ0oL3KX0

  • 18 December: O Adonai
    O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento. // O Lord, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come to redeem us with an outstretched arm.

This antiphon appeals directly to the Lord, the leader of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the uncreated fire that does not destroy. Adonai, ‘Lord,’ is a title of God in Hebrew; kyrios, ‘Lord,’ is a common title for Jesus in the New Testament. This antiphon identifies Jesus as the manifestation of God in fire—both in the burning bush, where he appeared to save Israel from slavery, and in the theophany on Sinai, where he gave Israel the law.

“I redeemed you with an outstretched arm”—this phrase commonly describes YHWH’s redeeming Israel from Egypt with great works (the plagues and Red Sea; Exod 6:6, Deut 4:4, 5:15, 7:19, 9:29, 11:12, 26:8, 1 Kgs 8:42, 2 Kgs 17:36; Ps 136:12; Jer 32:21). The outstretched arm of YHWH appears in battle against all who oppress his people (Ezek 20:33–34). Israel, in Babylon, looked up and saw the people who defeated them on every side. They saw their wealth, learned their language, and knew themselves as the conquered and imported. To them YHWH said: “I will bare my arm for you” (Isa 52:10).

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus metamorphosizes in mountain theophany during the Transfiguration. Radiating glory, he is joined by Moses and Elijah, who themselves were enveloped in divine fire. Jesus is thus the Lord: “This is my Son, the beloved. I am delighted with him. Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5). The glory of God is revealed as Jesus stretches out his arms and redeems his people from darkness on every side — from phantasmagorias, from wounds, from deaths. If we look around in loneliness, in darkness, in longing, we may look up and see a flickering flame.

O Lord, come to us in the fire that does not consume.

  • 19 December: O Radix Jesse
    O radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. // O Root of Jesse, who stands as a sign among the people; before whom kings will shut their mouths, to whom the nations make their entreaties: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Isaiah sees a future after YHWH’s devastation. The “shoot” (11:1) or “root” (11:10) of Jesse stands as the emblem of that hope. This future king, David returned, will be marked by the Spirit of YHWH, which is “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of the knowledge and the fear of YHWH.” He will delight in YHWH and judge on behalf of the poor (11:4–5). Under his rule, violence will cease, even in the animal kingdom (11:6–9): “they will do no harm nor destroy anything on all my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea.”

When this root of Jesse comes, he will deliver his people from Assyria (11:11) and every other region they have been scattered. Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel (722 BC) and settled them in different regions throughout the Assyrian Empire, a policy they enacted for all conquered peoples (2 Kgs 17). This scattering stands as a cry out to YHWH, like the Israelites in Egypt before them. The Root stands as a signal to all nations, who will seek him out, “and his resting place will be glorious” (11:10).

The antiphon reads Isaiah 11’s “root of Jesse” with Second Isaiah’s Servant — in Isaiah 52:13–15, the servant is “exalted and lifted up” (13), a phrase unique to Isaiah that elsewhere refers to the divine enthronement. This astonishes the kings because “so disfigured was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond any humanity” (14) and yet “he will sprinkle many peoples / kings will shut their mouths over him” because they will see something new, that they never imagined, and will contemplate something they never heard before (15).

The Gospel of John understands Jesus’ ‘lifting up’ as the glorification of the Son and in him the Father (John 3:14). This glorification brings back the scattered of Israel, which he reads in Caiphas’s accidental prophecy:

“‘You have not reasoned that it is more advantageous for you that one man die for the people than the whole nation be destroyed.’ Now he did not say this on his own but, since he was high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather up into one the scattered children of God” (John 11:50-52).

O Good Shepherd looking for one lost sheep, calling each by name; Good Father standing at the gate, peering down the road for his son's return; Root of Jesse who grows into a tree holding every scattered one together; come find us and deliver us.

  • 20 December: O Clavis David
    O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis. // O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The opening of this antiphon refers to Isaiah 22:22, where YHWH tells Isaiah to warn Shebna, steward of the house of the king, that he should not be making for himself a family tomb in the palace: “YHWH is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow” (22:17). In his place YHWH will put Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who will take Shebna’s vestments and authority, and “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open” (22:22).

This passage uses the image of the key to convey authority over the royal household. Eliakim the steward will have the keys to the house that no one else has. Jesus uses the idiom to describe the authority he gives Peter (Matthew 16:19; see also 18:18), who will be able to judge the Church. In this prayer, Jesus himself is the key and the scepter of Israel — he has in himself, not by vestiture, the ability to open and shut all doors. He opens the gates of hell and frees its prisoners; he is the bright ray of sunrise in every darkness:

Isaiah 42:6–7

“I am YHWH. I have called you in righteousness

I have grasped you by your hand and kept you

I have given you as a covenant for the people,

a light to the nations

to open blind eyes

to bring out the prisoner from the dungeon

from the jailhouse those who sit in darkness.”

All authority is given to Jesus. With this authority he leads out prisoners.

Oh light in our darkness, free us from our prisons; Key, unlock every door. We are imprisoned within; untie these knots. You are in prison in our midst; visit us as we visit you. Come and lead out all of us in prison.

  • 21 December: O Oriens
    O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. // O Sun, splendour of light eternal and sun of justice: Come and illuminate those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The title “Oriens” means the rising sun, but is often translated “morning star.” The title is drawn from the Vulgate translation of Zechariah 3:8, ecce enim ego adducam servum meum orientem, “for behold I will raise up my servant the east” or as Douey-Rheims translates, “for behold, I WILL BRING MY SERVANT THE ORIENT.” This translation derives from the Septuagint's διότι ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἄγω τὸν δοῦλόν μου Ἀνατολήν· “for behold I bring forth my servant the Branch.” The Greek word anatole usually means ‘the east’, the movement of celestial bodies, or the rising of the sun in the east. It’s only used two times in the Greek Old Testament: both translate Zechariah’s prophecies of the branch, Hebrew tsemach, from the verb ‘to sprout, to grow’ (Zech 3:8, 6:12). But Israel often looked for YHWH’s salvation as the rising of the sun.

In Psalm 57, the Psalmist, lying among lions, that is, enemies who “set a net for his feet” and “dug a pit in his path,” prays “rise up over the heavens, O God / let your glory be over all the earth.” The Psalmist will not stay lost in the night: he enjoins himself, “Awake my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will wake up the dawn.” He knows that like the sun’s rays, God’s “steadfast love is as high as the heavens” and his faithfulness “extends to the clouds.” When God rises above the heavens and shines his glory over all the earth, the Psalmist will no longer have anything to fear. The light of God’s justice—et sol justitiae—will penetrate every dark corner.

Isaiah 9:1

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light,

those who dwelled in the land of the shadow of death —

light has shone upon them.

O Sun of Justice, dawn upon us with the light of your justice and grace. Free us from every tyranny, without and within.

  • 22 December: O Rex Gentium
    O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. // O King of the nations and their desire, the cornerstone which makes both one: Come and save humanity, which you fashioned from clay.

This antiphon brings together the redemption of all people with creation and the reign of Christ. Jesus inaugurates the new kingdom of God, wherein God’s people come from any and everywhere. Jesus is the cornerstone (Eph 2:20) “making both one,” (Eph 2:15–16) that is, he brings together both sides of the universal binary Jew/Gentile in the new, variegated kingdom.

This new humanity (Eph 2:15) began in the first century but has by no means been realized. O Rex Gentium expresses this reign as the salvation of all humans “which you fashioned from clay.” Christ the King and Savior is Christ the Uncreated/Created Creator. The waiting we express in advent is a desire for the coming kingdom, the reigning of the Son of God, who saves creation through his Incarnation. Christ the King cannot be understood except as Christ the redeemer of what he created—Christ the infant in the manger, Christ whose kingship is first publicly announced via a bill nailed to the top of the main beam of his cross.

“For the best self-attestation of the Good is its defenselessness in the face of the power of evil. The best attestation of Truth is silence in the face of much-talkative falsehood. The supreme manifestation of Beauty consists in the unadornment by vain adornment. The power of God triumphs by means of itself, not by means of the power of this world. For the world, there is no power of God. The world does not see and does not know the power of God: it laughs at the power of God. But Christians know that the sign of God is powerlessness in the world — the Infant in the manger.”[1]

O King of the nations, the suffering Son desired beyond desire’s limits, come and complete your creation in us.

____

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, Churchly Joy: Orthodox Devotions For the Church Year. trans. Boris Jakin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2008), 40.

  • 23 December: O Emmanuel
    O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster. // O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

In Matthew 1:23, the narrator writes that Mary’s divine pregnancy and Joseph’s angelic dream fulfilled Isaiah’s Emmanuel prophecy (7:14). Isaiah gave this prophecy to King Ahaz as Jerusalem was surrounded by the troops of King Pekah of Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom, Israel) and King Rezin of Aram, who wanted him to join their battle against the mighty Assyrians. King Ahaz was under tremendous pressure to yield to this siege: Isaiah told him that a young woman (in Hebrew; παρθένος, ‘virgin’ in Greek) would conceive and bear a son named “God is with us,” and that when that child was weaned, he would be able to eat curds and honey — rich food, not the stuff of besieged people (7:15). Ephraim and Aram would be vanquished (7:16). Ahaz, surrounded on all sides by coercive enemies, should not cede to their schemes, but should instead trust YHWH.

This sign finds its ultimate fulfillment in the Incarnation by the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, bearing Jesus, the Son of God, fully God and fully human, the Logos who created all things, in whose image every person is crafted from clay. When John speaks of this Logos becoming flesh and pitching a tent among us (John 1:14), he extends the glory of YHWH’s theophany on Mt. Sinai, which descends and overwhelms the Tent of Meeting and the People of God, to the human flesh of Jesus: “and have beheld his glory, the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” We receive Emmanuel's grace upon grace as his law, the truth of the deepest heart of God (John 1:18).

John knows the God who creates the world in seven days (Gen 1:1–2:4a) and commands the meticulous construction of the Tent of Meeting (Exod 25–31, 35–40) so he could descend in glory to meet with the Israelites there (Exod 40:34–35): “I will meet the Israelites there, and it will be made sacred by my glory. So I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar, just as I also consecrate Aaron and his sons to be my priests. I will dwell in the midst of the Israelites and I will be for them God. They will know that I, YHWH, am their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that I, YHWH, their God, might dwell among them” (Exod 29:43–46).

John takes this same God to be the Logos, wisdom’s delight in the creation of God, the creator of all life and therefore the light of all humans, who made of his human body a tent for God’s glory and revealed the grace and truth needed for communion with him. This is the Saviour who we, like King Ahaz, must wait for when we too are surrounded by darkness on all sides. This is the sun who comes with justice for the poor, as Mary proclaims in the Magnificat. This is the grace we enjoin, the light that must be born in us as “we all, with unveiled faces behold the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are being metamorphosed into that same image from glory to glory,” for although “what we will be has not yet been revealed, what we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

O Lord who dwells with us, abide with us with your glory as we abide in you so we may become ever more bearers of God, ever more like you, and so be saved.

PC: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. | Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dr. Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Hughes Huff earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East at the University of Chicago in 2019. He studies how ancient authors portray social practices in narratives and use technical and metaphorical language to make ritual authoritative. He also investigates how scholars use modern ethical stances to evaluate ancient Middle Eastern social practices. Hughes Huff teaches courses in Bible, ethics and social justice, literature, languages, and archeology. Hughes Huff is a staff Historian for the Baluʿa Regional Archaeological Project with excavations in Khirbat al-Baluʿa, Jordan. Outside the classroom, he enjoys wine and cycling, but not at the same time.