Dec 1, 2023
“We are asking Christ to come… to teach us, rescue us, shine on us, free us and, repeated three times, to save us.”
Can you imagine an Advent Season without the ‘O Antiphons’? If so, perhaps it’s because you don’t recognize them in the famous Christmas carol, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel? At least since the 8th century, these seven antiphons have been an important part of Roman Catholic liturgy. Each antiphon is built around a title given to the Messiah in the Old Testament.
O Wisdom (Sapentia) of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path to knowledge (understanding).
The first antiphon captures the first three sefirot of the Kabbalah: Crown (Godhead), Wisdom and Understanding (knowledge). Christ (Logos) is the Wisdom (Sophia) of God.
O Leader (Adonai) of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power.
This antiphon links three contrasting concepts: Leadership, Law, and Liberty (‘rescue’). While secular laws may be enslaving, God’s Law (Torah) is always liberating. It rescues us, not only from our enemies, foreign or domestic, material or spiritual, but it also frees us from ourselves…from our addictions, our attachments, our idols. Law is necessary, but it is never enough. Even after giving the Law to Moses, YHWH continued to govern the House of Israel directly through a sort of Constitutional Theocracy (The Book of Judges).
O Root (Radix) of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!
Christ is descended from King David, but Christ is also the root from which David’s father, Jesse, sprang. True God and True Man, Christ fuses the temporal and the eternal, history and the Kingdom of God. Only Jesus can justly sing that ole country standard, “I am my own great-great-great Grandpa.”
O Key (Clavis) of David, opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom: come and free the prisoners of darkness!
We’re all living our lives in supermax. Our bodies are mortal, our minds are shrouded in impenetrable ignorance, and we are randomly subject to hideous physical and psychological torture at any time.
O Radiant Dawn (Oriens), splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.
At the moment of conception, each of us is sentenced to death. Execution may take place immediately…or 100 years later…it depends on how good a lawyer you can afford. But in the final analysis, it doesn’t make much difference; we all end up in the same place eventually. It turns out that life is the shadow of death.
O King (Rex) of all nations and keystone of the Church: come and save us humans whom you formed from dust.
Christ is King, King of the Universe. All secular authority is a reflection of divine authority, and it is valid only so long as, and to the extent that, it projects Christ’s values into the world. Ideally, the Church is society reimagined, i.e., with Christ as its cornerstone.
O Emmanuel (Emmanuel), our King and Giver of Law: come to save us, Lord our God.
The O Antiphons are prayed along with Mary’s Magnificat on the seven days leading up to the Vigil of Christmas. Built around seven Messianic titles from the Old Testament, the antiphons take pains to connect those titles to the babe who is about to be born historically in Bethlehem and reborn eternally in liturgy.
Interestingly, the first letters of the Messianic titles (in Latin, of course), Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia—spell out ‘ERO CRAS’, meaning, "I will come tomorrow!" Were these antiphons the inspiration for Annie: “The sun will come out, tomorrow?”
We must not get lost in the beauty of these antiphons; we need to remember that they are first and foremost prayers. We are asking Christ to come… to teach us, rescue us, shine on us, free us and, repeated three times, to save us. But as we pray, so we believe. The O Antiphons embody a comprehensive theology:
Sapentia connects the Power and Love of God with human Wisdom and Knowledge.
Adonai celebrates the liberating Law of God given to Moses in the Sinai.
Radix reveals Christ as the origin (root) and destiny of all things.
Clavis reveals Christ as ‘keeper of the keys’: the key that unlocks our mortal prison and the key that opens the gates of heaven.
Oriens reveals Christ as the ever-recurring and eternal Light that overcomes darkness.
Rex pays tribute to Christ as Ruler of the World.
Emmanuel sums it up. God is not just over us; God is with us. The Incarnation turns the Universe inside out. The whole becomes part of itself; therefore, the whole (God) is with all of us (fellow parts), individually as well as collectively.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.