This time of year brings out the awe and joy (O!) in the music of the Advent and Christmas Seasons – especially in the “O Antiphons“. The exclamation of “O” or “Oh” is an audible release of an emotion, itself unseen.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “Oh” is, “An exclamation used to express a range of emotions including surprise, anger, disappointment, or joy, or when reacting to something that has just been said”. During the anticipatory season of Advent and the arrival of Christmas this “O” is associated with the coming of the Savior as “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
The “O’s” in Christmas Carols are many! Don’t these “O’s” reflect awe and joy?
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O tidings of comfort and joy (God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen)
O Holy Night
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum)
Another special form of musical “O’s” are sung every day just before the Magnificat as part of the rite of Evening Vespers starting on December 17th through December 23rd in the form of the “O Antiphons”. The O Antiphons are a series of short chants based on scripture passages from the Book of Isaiah (see more about the beautiful poetry of Advent here https://churchwonders.com/2022/12/08/isaiahs-poetry-of-advent-still-fresh-in-2022/).
The O Antiphons all start with the exclamation “O” preceding an ancient title of the Messiah. The following are the titles of the Messiah used in the O Antiphons, along with references to the Book of Isaiah. From Loyola Press – see below.
O Sapientia (O Wisdom) See Isaiah 11:2–3; 28:29.
O Adonai (O Lord) See Isaiah 11:4–5; 33:22.
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) See Isaiah 1:1; 11:10.
O Clavis David (O Key of David) See Isaiah 9:6; 22:22.
O Oriens (O Rising Sun) See Isaiah 9:1.
O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) See Isaiah 9:5; 2:4.
O Emmanuel (God with us) See Isaiah 7:14
It is said that the early arrangers, of these chants used in monasteries, cleverly used Messianic titles which the first letter of each can be arranged form the Latin words, “ERO CRAS” which translate to “tomorrow I will be”. The chanting of these O Antiphons in the darkness of Vespers in December most certainly raised awe and joy in anticipation of the coming of Emmanuel (God with us) (Is 7:14).
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
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Janczyk, Father Jacob Bertrand, OP – https://aleteia.org/2019/12/16/the-great-o-antiphons-an-advent-tradition/
Loyola Press – https://www.loyolapress.com/catholic-resources/liturgical-year/advent/about-advent/what-are-the-o-antiphons/
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – https://www.usccb.org/resources/o-antiphons-advent