O antiphons

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 seven antiphons, and a recording of the traditional plainchant setting of each one. Note that the music is roughly the same, though the text changes from night to night.

Antiphon for December 17th

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
reaching from one end to the other,
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 18th

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
and gave him the law on Sinai:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Antiphon for December 19th

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
before you kings will shut their mouths,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
to you the nations will make their prayer:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Antiphon for December 20th

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
you open and no one can shut;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
you shut and no one can open:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Antiphon for December 21st

O Oriens,
O Morning Star,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Antiphon for December 22nd

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
O King of the nations, and their desire,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
the cornerstone making both one:
veni, et salva hominem,
Come and save the human race,
quem de limo formasti.
which you fashioned from clay.

Antiphon for December 23rd

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
Come and save us, O Lord our God.