23 Dec 2022

The Great “O’s”: The Antiphons of Christmas

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Bible, Christian hope, Christmas, Church, Church History, Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Worship
Boethius (AD 480-524)

For approximately 1600 years or more, disciples of Jesus have prayed the “O” Antiphons leading up to “Christmas.” Ancient disciples did not use that term which was introduced many centuries later. They spoke of “advent” or the coming/appearing.

In the ancient church there were no trees. No commercialism. No corporations used by the pagan god of Capitalism, Mammon, to hijack the celebration of the Incarnation of God, the coming of Immanuel. The “commercialization” of “Christmas” is largely a capitalist event that began in the early 20th century in North America. (Trees became part of northern European celebrations in the 16th century [1500s]).

There was however, prayer, worship, acts of service, and a yearning for the Coming of the Lord. The seven short prayers of the “O’s,” the O Antiphons as they are called, helped disciples, for centuries on end, to focus upon the Story and the Hope.

Boethius was an orphan, became a genuine scholar and senator in the Ostrogothic Kingdom. He was imprisoned in AD 523 for severe criticism of the governmental abuse of power and corruption and was executed in 524. While waiting for death, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy which includes numerous meditations on Christian faith.

The “O’s” are first mentioned by Boethius in his classic, The Consolation of Philosophy written while in prison in AD 524. But scholars believe they are not original with him because he presents them as a known and established tradition. The “Seven O’s” are part of Boethius’s “self talk” to faith as he awaited his fate. That collection exercised enormous influence upon believers for 16 centuries following. But as a younger disciple, I confess, I did not even have a clue they existed. But it is a practice that is one of the diamonds in the great Christian tradition.

In Boethius’s time, the disciples in what we call Italy today spoke Latin .The Scriptures they heard in worship was in Latin (recall no disciple owned a Bible yet, not for another 1000 years). The “O’s” are based upon the Latin Scriptures that he knew nearly by heart. Most modern English speakers are vaguely familiar with the Great O’s through paraphrase we sing of them in “O Come, O Emmanuel.”

The “O’s” are a response to Mary’s (Miriam’s) prophetic song in Luke 1.46-55. Each prayer addresses God with a different biblical name and ends with a plea for the Lord to come.

The Antiphons are arranged in a sequence and prayed/sang on days leading up to Christmas day. They begin on December 17 and run to December 23. The sequence is as follows.

December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adoni (O Ruler)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dawn of the East)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (God with us)

I will give the Antiphon and the text upon which the prayer was based. There are seven. Many today forget (or never knew) that at “Christmas,” we do not just celebrate the first coming of the Messiah. Rather we wait and pray in eager expectation for his Second Coming. In many ways the “church” is in the exact same position as God’s People before the “advent” of the Word in the Jew from Nazareth. They lived in expectant hope, we too live in expectant hope. The Seven “O’s” are: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia.

1) “O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and tenderly ordering creation:
Come and teach us the way to salvation

(Isaiah 11.2-3; Sirach 24.1-5; Wisdom of Solomon 8.1; Sirach and Wisdom were in the Greek and Latin Bible. If you come from an Evangelical or Restoration background you may not know Sirach and Wisdom. I encourage you to look up the references).

The O’s

2) O Adonai, ruler of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the burning bush,
and gave him the holy law on Sinai:
Come and Redeem us with an outstretched arm
(Isaiah 11.4-5; 33.22; Exodus 3.2)

3) O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign to all the peoples;
rulers stand silent in your presence;
to you the nations make their prayers:
Come and deliver us, delay no longer
(Isaiah 11.1; Romans 15.12)

4) O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
controlling the gate of heaven:
Come and lead the prisoners out,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
(Isaiah 22.22; Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 42.7)

5) O Morning Star,
splendor of light, sun of justice:
Come, enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

(Isaiah 9.2; Isaiah 60.1-2)

6) O King of the nations and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from the clay
(Isaiah 9.6; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 64.8 )

7) O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver;
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

(Isaiah 7.14)

These Antiphons can be a valuable aid in focusing our own prayer thoughts. We, too, can praise the One who is Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, the Morning Star (light of the world), Ruler of nations, and Emmanuel (God with Us). The “Great O’s” help us pray for King Jesus’s future coming/advent, not just remember his past coming. We too can pray … Come!

These petitions are so biblical.

And we join Paul and all the early Christians in praying:

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

One Response to “The Great “O’s”: The Antiphons of Christmas”

  1. JT Says:

    Thank you, Bobby for this. We all tend to forget that we are not to become too comfortable with our present place but are to be EAGER for his second return.

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