O Antiphons: A Prayerful Homestretch to Christmas

Photo by Carlos Daniel on Cathopic

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is one of my favorite hymns, if not my all-time favorite. This hymn is ubiquitous with the Advent season and is heard in most Catholic churches in the United States at least once in the season. The words of this hymn, simultaneously wonderfully ancient and ever-new, are based on what is referred to as the “O Antiphons.” Now, maybe you already knew that, maybe you’ve heard of the “O Antiphons” before, or maybe you’re now wondering what an antiphon even is. Chances are though, you’ve heard this hymn and might have wondered where it came from.

An antiphon is a short phrase or sentence that is used in liturgies like the Mass or Liturgy of the Hours. Antiphons serve as small refrains and often highlight a particular message or prayer of the season. In this case, the “O Antiphons” refer to the specific antiphons used in Vespers (evening prayer of Liturgy of the Hours) that go with reciting the Magnificat (Mary’s prayer of praise from Luke) from December 17 to 23. Together, these seven antiphons – all of which start with calling upon Jesus Christ with an exclamatory O, hence the name –  help to serve as a prayerful conclusion to Advent, a homestretch prayer on our way to Christmas.

LISTEN: Father Dave Explains O Antiphons

Structurally, each antiphon has two key parts. The first is a traditional title of Jesus Christ as the messiah, the one who was promised to come, such as Emmanuel, used by Gabriel in the Annunciation meaning “God with us.” These titles reflect how the prophets thought of the coming messiah and who he is. The second part of each antiphon is a reflection of that role by drawing upon the words of the prophet Isaiah. This portion helps to reflect on the mission and ministry of the messiah and how he would live out that particular title. For us as Christians, we use these prophetic titles and words to reflect on Jesus Christ, what he has done in history, and how he continues to act in our lives today.

We can sit with these seven little phrases and draw upon their richness in helping us to know Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God, guiding us in our lives and actions. We too call upon Jesus Christ in a longing way as we look forward to and hope for his second coming. So just as the prophets longed for his first arrival, we too wait eagerly and look forward to his return in glory.