One of the best-loved Advent hymns we sing is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". The verses of that stirring song are comprised of what the Church calls the Advent "O antiphons".
The O antiphons were composed in the 7th or 8th century by an anonymous monk. These seven, short poetic verses, in today's liturgy, are intoned or recited as the Alleluia verse before the Gospel at Mass, and as the antiphon for the Magnificat at vespers. Each Advent, the Church begins singing the O antiphons on December 17—seven days before Christmas.
In structure, each of the O antiphons is made up of three parts. The first part is an invocation of Jesus by way of a title derived from an Old Testament prefiguring of Christ. The second part expands and elaborates on that invocation, at the same time conveying our grateful appreciation of God's providence at work wondrously in Jesus. Finally, each O antiphon closes with a fervent bidding that the Messiah come to us.
Taken together, the awesome O antiphons express our loving humility before God, our hope-filled powerlessness, and our confident trust and faith in God's promises.
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.
Our first cry is a begging for Christ to come to us as wisdom. Wisdom consists in judging everything by its highest cause—God's will. Without wisdom, we are left prey to our own will, our own understanding—fallen and clouded. This plea is a desire to be obedient to something greater than ourselves in order to be ourselves. When we implore Jesus to come and show us the way to salvation, we are asking him to give us an escape from our own inability.
O Adonai, O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
The title "Adonai" expresses the majesty of God that Moses beheld in the burning bush. That revelation was the first step in setting free the Hebrew people from their two hundred years of slavery in Egypt. We, too, beg to be set free from our oppression, but not by God giving us a new law. What we long for is God's outstretched human hand. With the human hand of Jesus reaching out to us in our bondage, we will be set free.
O Flower of Jesse's stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.
The reason why kings will stand silent before a mere flower is because that flower springs forth miraculously from what appears to be a dead stump. This will be the very method of the Gospel. Jesus gives himself to those who experience their own nothingness—the poor, the sick, the sinful, the hated, the suffering, the dead—and through them he manifests the glory of the Father. Come, Jesus, let nothing keep you from coming to my aid…especially discouragement about my own nothingness.
O Key of David, O royal power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.
To cry out to Christ as a key is to confess that there are things about us that need to be unlocked. Sometimes we opt to live closed off and hidden behind walls…even if they are the prison walls of our past wounds, and failures, and sins. But our self-imposed captivity is killing us. We crave a royal power that will break down those prison walls and lead us into freedom. Authentic and vulnerable, we beg for a compassion that can penetrate even locked doors, stone walls, and stony self-hatred.
O radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
To entreat Jesus as the dawn is to make a supreme act of hope. Our asking voices a certainty strong in the Psalms: At night there are tears, but joy comes with the dawn (Ps 29:6). My soul is longing for the Lord, more than the watchman for dawn (Ps 129:6). No matter how heavy or suffocating the darkness, we will keep our attention closely fixed on Christmas "until the first streaks of dawn appear" (2 Pt 1:19). Nothing will overshadow our hope in the nearness of the Light of the world—our friend.
O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.
We call out to Jesus as a king of a very unique kind. He is "the only joy of every human heart." Joy is the response of the heart to what it perceives as an authentic promise of life. That promise is coming! Jesus is the "keystone of the mighty arch of man"—the one who holds everything together. But we will never care about such a king so long as we remain the center of the universe. How we need humility! And so we remind Jesus that we are but creatures fashioned from the dust.
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of all the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
This final appeal to Jesus as Emmanuel—God-with-us—anticipates the Eucharist when we will proclaim "My Lord and my God!" Our supplication reveals how much what we yearn for is a Presence that we can approach. He is the desire of the nations. The first words Jesus will speak in the Gospel of John will be the question, What are you looking for? That is, What do you desire? I desire you, Jesus. I desire only you, Jesus…nothing less than you. Give me the courage to live the desire that is your own blessed gift to me.
There's an intriguing liturgical secret embedded in the medieval O antiphons. Using the Latin version of the O Antiphons, if you take the first letter of each invocation—Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia—and you read them in reverse order, they make an acrostic forming two Latin words: Ero Cras. Those two words translated mean, "I will be with you tomorrow."