I love the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and I’m looking forward to singing it over the coming week as the count down to Christmas intensifies. Written in Latin in the early 18th century, the hymn takes its lyrics from the Church’s ancient “O antiphons”. An antiphon is a short phrase, usually taken from Scripture that is sung as a refrain before and after a psalm or canticle.

The O antiphons are a series of seven antiphons beginning with “O”, that are used in the octave (seven days) leading up to Christmas Eve, with a different antiphon proclaimed each day. The Liturgy of the Hours features the O antiphons during Evening Prayer (Vespers) for the Magnificat antiphon. The Gospel Acclamation for the Mass of the Day incorporates the O Antiphons as they are so fitting.

Spanning from 17 December to 23 December, the O Antiphons signal an intensification for the longing for Christ as we await the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord with its Vigil on 24 December. That they are assigned only in this one week of the Church’s liturgy makes the O antiphons very special; deriving from the prophecies of Isaiah, they refer to the various titles given to the Messiah, the God who will save Israel. They tell of Salvation History, of how God has never abandoned his people even in the darkest of times.

The titles for each day are as follows:

  • 17 December O Sapientia (O Wisdom) cf Isaiah 11:2–3; 28:29
  • 18 December O Adonai (O Lord) cf Isaiah 11:4–5; 33:22
  • 19 December O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) cf Isaiah 1:1; 11:10
  • 20 December O Clavis David (O Key of David) cf Isaiah 9:6; 22:22
  • 21 December O Oriens (O Rising Sun) cf Isaiah 9:1
  • 22 December O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) cf Isaiah 9:5; 2:4
  • 23 December O Emmanuel (God with us) cf Isaiah 7:14.

The Messianic titles have been organised in a very specific way. Firstly, the antiphons implore God to save his people, and each antiphon builds upon the previous one, creating a sense of impatient yearning. Secondly, beginning with the last of the Messianic titles and working forward, the first letter of each title (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai and Sapientia) spells “ERO CRAS”, Latin for "Tomorrow, I will come." This literary device is a clever way to aid meditation upon the Incarnation.

The hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” doesn’t follow the same ordering of the Messianic titles; it begins where the usual antiphons conclude, with the coming of Emmanuel. Perhaps this year, you may hear it differently and so I encourage you to reflect upon the verses. The third verse will have resonance with the faithful in countries where they are still facing the ravages of COVID-19. Perhaps this year Melburnians will sing this Advent hymn with an entirely new perspective.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The O antiphons make their point – our God is one that has accompanied his people throughout history, longing to love us and to save us. The O antiphons are a powerful way to ponder the Incarnation and bring Advent to its conclusion.