The song of the Virgin Mary, the Magnificat, has long been sung in the evening services in the Church, whether Vespers in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgies, or Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition. When the Magnificat is sung, it is often set apart — before and after — by the singing or saying of an antiphon, a short phrase that reinforces some aspect of the significance of Mary’s song.
Sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, it became common during the week before Christmas to use a series of special Magnificat antiphons. A different text was used each night from December 17th through the 23rd, and each text addressed Christ directly using Messianic imagery from the Old Testament. Attributes of Christ and his work were summarized in seven Messianic names: Wisdom, Adonai (a Hebrew name for God that means “Lord”), Root of Jesse, Key of David, Morning Star, King of the Nations, and Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God with us”).
In the early English usage, the antiphons were sung at Evening Prayer beginning on December 16th, and an eighth antiphon was added, “O Virgo virginum” for singing on December 23rd. The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church reflects a reversion within the Anglican communion to the traditional dating, with the series commencing on December 17th.
These seven antiphons have been set to music by many composers, and our hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is a compilation and paraphrase of the seven texts.
Below is the text to each of the eight antiphons, reflecting the older English usage. The English translation is based on that of John Mason Neale, with slight alterations. The text is followed by a recording of the traditional plainchant setting sung in English. Note that the music is roughly the same each night, though the text changes.
Antiphon for December 16th
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
and reachest from one end to another,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Antiphon for December 17th
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
who appearedest in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
and gavest him the law in Sinai:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
Antiphon for December 18th
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
O Root of Jesse, Which standest for an ensign of the people;
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
at Whom kings shall shut their mouths,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
unto Whom the Gentiles shall seek:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
Come and deliver us, and tarry not.
Antiphon for December 19th
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
O Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
That openest and no man shutteth;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
and shuttest and no man openeth:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
Come and bring the prisoners out of the prison house,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Antiphon for December 20th
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
Brightest of the Light everlasting, the Sun of Righteousness:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
Come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
Antiphon for December 21st
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
O King of nations, and their desire,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
the Cornerstone, Who makest both one:
veni, et salva hominem,
Come and save mankind,
quem de limo formasti.
whom thou formest of clay.
Antiphon for December 22nd
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
the Desire of all nations and their salvation:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Antiphon for December 23rd
O Virgo Virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be?
Quia nec primam similem visa es,
For neither before thee was any seen like thee,
nec habere sequentem.
nor shall there be after.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.