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Musical Musings: Advent
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Singing the Great O Antiphons

by Gary D. Penkala

What a great treasure the liturgical tradition of the Roman Rite has left us in the O Antiphons of the Advent season. These are the very antiphons, still used in the current Liturgy of the Hours, which surround the Magnificat at Evening Prayer (Vespers) from December 17 - 23. They are seven titles for Christ, the Messiah, drawn from Hebrew Scripture, representing a "mosaic" of the Old Testament.

  • O Sapientia [Wisdom]
  • O Adonai [Lord]
  • O Radix Jesse [Root of Jesse]
  • O Clavis David [Key of David]
  • O Oriens [Dayspring]
  • O Rex gentium [King of the Nations]
  • O Emmanuel [God-with-Us]

C.J. McNaspy in the Paulist publication, New Catholic World, tells us:

Their themes are broadly messianic, stressing the brightness of hope. Jesus is invoked under a series of titles, drawn largely from Isaiah, but in a sequence that must be intentional. They move historically from the beginning, before creation, to the very gates of Bethlehem. It seems more than coincidental, too, that the titles given to Jesus make an acrostic in Latin, which when read backwards means: "I will be tomorrow" ("Ero Cras") -- an obvious (at least to the medieval mind) allusion to Christmas eve.

Each antiphon manifests traditional liturgical prayer pattern:

  1. Addressing the Almighty with a noble title
  2. Praise relating to that title
  3. A relevant petition

The first antiphon, prescribed for use on December 17, addresses Christ as Wisdom, recalling Saint John's prologue and the Logos (Word). The next antiphon speaks of Christ as Adonai (Lord), a substitution in Hebrew speech for the reverently unpronounced Name of God, Yahweh. The third antiphon recalls the messianic lineage from David's line, whose father was Jesse. The Jesse Trees common during Advent graphically depict this ancestral history. Antiphon four awards to Christ the inheritance of David, his kingly power and rights, seen in the symbol of the key.

The next antiphon offers a title, Oriens, concise, but very rich in meaning: "Dayspring," "Dawn," "Rising Sun." The Benedictus, sung daily at Morning Prayer, contains the phrase Oriens ex alto (The Dawn from on high), describing Jesus, the Sun of justice, radiance of the Father. Antiphon six addresses Christ as "King of the nations," at once confirming the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations and turning the focus on the Gentiles, the entire world, for whom the Savior would come with salvation. The last antiphon, O Emmanuel, specified for the evening of December 23, provides the culmination of this series of sacred salutations. This is perhaps the most holy of all the titles, given by God through the prophet Isaiah, to his only-begotten Son:

The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

The Latin text and proper music for the O Antiphons may be found in CNP's publication, Booklet of Chant, Volume 1, catalog #2001. The CNP chant booklet uses modern notation for the chant; for those able to read the more precise and expressive neums of the Gregorian notation, the antiphons are found on pages 340-342 of the Liber usualis.

There are many practical ways to use these glorious "day-markers" of Advent. Most ideally, for communities who pray daily Evening Prayer, they should be sung in their proper place as the Magnificat antiphon from December 17 - 23. The schola could easily learn the music (which is similar among all seven) and sing these during Evening Prayer. They are also set out as the Alleluia verses for Masses on the same days. A fitting way to celebrate these last days of Advent would be for one or several cantors to learn the O Antiphons and sing them as the Gospel verses.

Mid-week Advent services, Advent Penitential Services, Advent Sunday Vespers, or Services of Lessons and Carols might be appropriate places to sing (and even explain) the O Antiphons. During my tenure as Director of Sacred Music at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, the seminarians' choir gave an Advent concert based on the O Antiphons, with appropriate readings, hymns and anthems intermingled with the chanted texts from the Liber. One of the seminarians, an artist by trade, designed a program cover that capitalized on the acrostic in Latin. He drew a scroll with the seven titles in proper order. The shadow of the scroll had the phrases reversed, so that the initial letters now spelled "Ero cras" ("Tomorrow I will be").

For parishes whose musical forces meet only on Sundays, there are still ways to incorporate this ancient tradition into liturgies. The Fourth Sunday of Advent always falls within this period (except when Christmas is on a Monday). As the date for this Fourth Sunday will change each year, have the choir learn the proper antiphon for the date. This could be sung very effectively as an Introit, either as the Opening Song (no, the congregation does not always have to sing it), or before the Opening Song, perhaps from the back of the church or from the balcony. If followed by a chant setting of the Magnificat, the proper antiphon for the Sunday could make a perfect Offertory or Communion piece by the choir. It is on this Sunday that the liturgy emphasizes the role of Mary in the Incarnation mystery. Thus, the Magnificat (the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin) would be ideal.

Whether you're working in music for a small parish or a cathedral, for one cantor or a professional choir, there is a place for the O Antiphons in your planning. Let them be a cherished part of your parish's Advent liturgies year after year. Let them be "a joyous summary of revelation from Alpha to Omega, from creation to the eschaton, as well as a celebration of both Advents."

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