On the ‘O’ Antiphons

Dear Friends in Christ,

Welcome to the Bishop’s Blog this Advent!

One of the highpoints of the Advent liturgy is the series of O Antiphons recited at the Magnificat of Evening Prayer each evening from the 17th December onwards. These quite evocative and biblically rich compositions are often set to music, and are particularly haunting when sung in Plainchant in the original Latin version.

They receive the name of O Antiphons because they address Christ with a title or phrase drawn from Sacred Scripture.  These antiphons capture the liturgical atmosphere of Advent, with its sense of expectation and longing. They are also prayers of plea to God for mercy and salvation, in the knowledge that we cannot bestow these on ourselves.

One helpful way to pray these ancient antiphons would be to place ourselves in spirit in that period before the coming of Christ, with all the yearning and hope of God’s people of old for a Saviour. We also know from experience our own need for grace and salvation, and to have someone beyond us to whom we can turn.

The opening address of each antiphon offers much food for reflection. In the first, Christ is called upon as Wisdom, who comes forth from the Father and sustains the whole fabric of the universe. We beseech him to teach us the way of truth, in the knowledge that other less truthful and more dangerous paths exist.

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Then we have in the second antiphon the Lord addressed with the Hebrew term for Lord, Adonai, and the reference to God’s revelation of himself to Moses at the burning bush. As he once delivered a people from slavery, so now we invoke that same God to display his mighty power in our regard. Note the implied unity of Father and Son here.

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On the third evening the antiphon refers to Christ’s royal descent from David, and he is the King of kings. As his birthday approaches, we pray to him for deliverance. In the following evening’s antiphon Christ’s royal prerogatives are again invoked. He holds the key over life and death with total authority. The Church prays ardently that he will rescue us from the power of darkness.

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The antiphon of the fifth evening beautifully calls upon Christ as the rising Sun, with all the splendour and brightness which that image implies. As the true light we earnestly pray that he will dispel the darkness which so often envelops our world. The sixth antiphon speaks of Christ the King, and in the words of Isaiah, as the One whom the nations desire. The antiphon concludes with the heartfelt plea for him to come and save us whom he created from clay. This elevated series of seven antiphons concludes with an invocation to Emmanuel – God-with-us – and whom the world awaits, to come and truly be our saviour.

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The Church offers us who pray her Evening Prayer these biblical prayerful gems. They can provide a wonderful interlude, even respite towards evening, in the midst of what has today become a hectic commercial roundabout leading up to Christmas. These O Antiphons allow us to see Christ from many angles, and lead us ever more deeply into the mystery of Him whose birthday we shall shortly celebrate.

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Until next week we pray for one another,

As ever in Christ,

+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster