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The 'O' Antiphons

An antiphon is a short verse that is used like a refrain, either repeated at points through another text or to begin and end it. Antiphons are often used in Christian worship, for example, during the singing of psalms.

It is also traditional for the Gospel Canticle at Morning, Evening and Night Prayer to have an antiphon said or sung at the beginning and the end. The Gospel canticle at Evening Prayer (also known as Vespers or Evensong) is the Magnificat, the Song of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1.46-55).

The ‘O Antiphons’ are the antiphons that are said or sung before and after the Magnificat on the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (17–23 December). They all begin ‘O…’ hence their name. They are known by their Latin titles, for example, ‘O Sapientia…’, is ‘O Wisdom…’

The antiphons use texts from the Bible, both Old and New Testament, that Christians understand to refer to Jesus Christ, the coming Messiah.

People who do not know the antiphons from Evening Prayer may well know them from the Advent hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’.

In England the medieval rite of Salisbury Cathedral – known as the Sarum Rite - that was widespread before the Reformation, the antiphons began on 16 December and there was an additional antiphon (‘O Virgin of virgins’) on 23 December; this is reflected in the Calendar of The Book of Common Prayer, where 16 December is designated O Sapientia (O Wisdom). It is not known when and by whom the antiphons were composed, but they were already in use by the eighth century.

17 December – O Sapientia

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

reaching from one end to the other mightily,

and sweetly ordering all things:

Come and teach us the way of prudence. cf Ecclesiasticus 24.3; Wisdom 8.1

18 December – O Adonai

O Adonai, 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 and redeem us with an outstretched arm. cf Exodus 3.2; 24.12

19 December – O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;

before you kings will shut their mouths,

to you the nations will make their prayer:

Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. cf Isaiah 11.10; 45.14; 52.15; Romans 15.12

20 December – O Clavis David

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. cf Isaiah 22.22; 42.7

21 December – O Oriens

O Morning Star,

splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:

Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness

and the shadow of death. cf Malachi 4.2

22 December – O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their desire,

the cornerstone making both one:

Come and save the human race,

which you fashioned from clay. cf Isaiah 28.16; Ephesians 2.14

23 December – O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,

the hope of the nations and their Saviour:

Come and save us, O Lord our God. cf Isaiah 7.14