Find Us Online!


icon-facebook googlemapsicon soundcloud-3-xxl 07f0d7b69ef071571e4ada2f4d6a053a-instagram-icon-background-by-vexels

The O Antiphons of Advent
At morning prayer we join in the ancient tradition of counting down the days to Christmas using antiphons to the Magnificat

Singing and Saying our O's

The words we sing in O come, O come, Emmanuel are derived from what are called the “O antiphons,” also known as the Great antiphons or the Greater O’s. The term “antiphon” has come to be associated almost exclusively with music, though a sentence that is said before a selected text and then repeated again afterward is also an antiphon. In our current Prayer Book, antiphons are provided for the Invitatory in Morning Prayer. Prayer Book rubrics also allow for other antiphons, verses that the Church has traditionally used with Biblical canticles or psalms, especially Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. In the monastic tradition, the Greater O’s are antiphons that are said or chanted with Magnificat at the evening office in Advent.

In the most common tradition of singing the O’s, there are seven antiphons, though in some places additional antiphons were added for the Angel Gabriel, for Saint Thomas the Apostle, and others. Frequently, the eighth antiphon had to do with the Virgin Mary. The traditional seven plus the Marian antiphon are as follows:


O Wisdom, that proceedest out of the mouth of the most high, reaching from end to end mightily, and sweetly disposing all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel, who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law on Sinai: come and redeem us by thy outstretched arm.

O Root of Jesse, who standest as the ensign of the people, before whom kings shall not open their lips, to whom the Gentiles shall pray: come and deliver us, and tarry now no more.

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel; who openest and no man shutteth; who shuttest, and no man openeth: Come, and lead the captive from the prison house, and him that sitteth in darkness, and in the shadow of death.

O Orient, splendor of the eternal light, and sun of justice: come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O King of the Gentiles, yea, and the desire thereof, the cornerstone that makest both one: come and save man, whom Thou hast made out of the slime of the earth.

O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, the expectation of all nations and their savior: come and save us, O Lord our God.

O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

The O’s in practice

In early English use, the eight antiphons were begun on the evening of December 16. Since the antiphon for that evening begins O Sapientia (O Wisdom), the day appeared in the calendar as O Sapientia. In some places this mini-season within Advent was referred to as Sapientiatide. While the eighth antiphon has been a particularly beloved addition, the greater tradition has focused upon the seven antiphons, all sharing roots in Old Testament imagery for the long-awaited Messiah.


In medieval monastic communities, the seven antiphons were read by the members in reverse order of rank, beginning with the abbot, continuing through the various officers such as the gardener and the cellarer, and concluding with the most junior officer. The medieval love of form and order can be seen in the sequence of the antiphons as printed above, in which the first letter of each antiphon’s second word in Latin forms an acrostic with a message. Notice that the second word of each antiphon: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O radix Jesse, O clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex gentium, O Emanuel, when read backwards

(from the point of view of December 23) spells ERO CRAS, which gives way in Latin to the phrase, “Tomorrow I shall be present.” To the medieval monk, this only heightened the expectation for the Christmas vigil and the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ our Lord.

In John Mason Neale’s Hymnal Noted, published in 1851, the O antiphons were translated and paraphrased as the hymn, Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel. The text for O come, O come, Emmanuel is derived from Neale’s version with some changes made by the committees for the 1940 and 1982 Hymnals.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily,
to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.


O come, O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai's height,
in ancient times didst give the law, in cloud, and majesty, and awe.


O come, thou Branch of Jesse's tree, free them from Satan's tyranny
that trust thy mighty power to save, and give them victory o'er the grave.


O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.

O come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.


O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.


The refrain for the hymn, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” does not come directly from the Latin antiphons, but serves as an affirmation of the longing that runs through the verses.

The sense of longing for God’s presence runs through the verses of the hymn as well as through the original antiphons, where the main verb is the Latin veni, or “come.” “Come, and teach. Come and redeem. Come and deliver. Come and lead. Come and enlighten. Come and save.” Some scholars suggest a close connection between this veni and one of the earliest prayers of the Christian Church: maranatha, “Lord, come.” It is this prayer that ends Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and occurs also in the Second Century church document, the Didache. The same prayer concludes Saint John the Divine’s vision in Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus!”

When we say and pray our O’s, we follow in that line of believers who have longed for the coming of a Messiah. As Christians, we long for the coming again of our Lord and Savior. The O antiphons remind us of this history of longing, even as they speak powerfully to those things for which we might personally long and desire.

Praying the O’s this Advent

The O antiphons might be used in a number of ways. Whether one prays Evening Prayer with a parish or alone, this Advent might be a good time to use the antiphons with Magnificat. For convenience, The Hymnal 1982 provides dates next to the verses of O come, O come, Emmanuel. Or, perhaps it would be appropriate in your parish to use the more traditional antiphons. A parish or community also might decide to begin the antiphons on December 16 and use O Virgo virginum, the eighth antiphon for Our Lady, on December 23. As a personal devotion, one might decide to memorize the antiphons and to use them as the focus for meditation or Centering Prayer.

The O antiphons can also be used with children in a variety of ways. A family might chose to have a weekly or nightly Advent devotion, singing or saying the antiphons together. The antiphons could be divided in such a way as Week 1: antiphons 1 & 2, Week 2: antiphons 3 & 4, Week 3: antiphons 5 & 6, and concluding in Week 4 with antiphon 7. With some help, children might enjoy making an Advent house, similar to an Advent calendar, having seven widows, each containing an appropriate symbol for the different antiphons. A publication from Women for Faith & Family, a Roman Catholic group, suggests the following symbols: O Wisdom (oil lamp, open book), O Adonai (burning bush, stone tablets), O Root of Jesse (vine or plant with flower, a rose), O Key of David (key, broken chains), O Dayspring (rising sun), O King of the nations (crown,scepter), O Emmanuel (chalice and Host, the name, Jesus). Part of the fun might involve creating symbols based upon what the children themselves hear when they listen to the antiphons.

Keeping our O’s

Unlike the monks of the middle ages, it is not a requirement that we “keep our O’s” this Advent. But we might consider it as a practice. The saying and praying of the O antiphons can be a particular joy, whether our prayers are in a parish setting, with our family or alone. The antiphons connect us to a history of waiting and watching and hoping. The images remind us of the fulfillment of Jesus as Messiah and of God’s faithfulness in fulfilling the messianic promise. For those of us who struggle with daily impatience over the little things in life, the Great O’s help us find a larger perspective for being patient, for allowing God to work through history, through our lives and through the people around us.

John F. Beddingfield


Last Published: December 18, 2014 8:51 AM
© Copyright , All Souls Episcopal Church - Washington, DC. All rights reserved.
Empowered by Extend, a church software solution from