20 December: O Clavis David ... the North Cross at Castledermot depicts King David with his harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
The “O Antiphons” are Magnificat antiphons traditionally sung at Evensong or Vespers during the seven days of Advent preceding Christmas Eve, from 17 to 23 December.
Advent is primarily a season of preparation, not of penitence, it is a time of reflection and hope, anticipation and joyful expectation. The canticle Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Sunday Eucharist in Advent, not because of any penitential expectations for this season but, because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds it is held back until Christmas.
Each of the Great “O Antiphons”, beginning with a long, drawn-out “O,” refers to Christ by one of his attributes found in Scripture, calls on him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a rich tapestry of scriptural titles and images that describe his saving work, and ends with a short prayer based on the salutation of the day.
17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom);
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord);
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse);
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David);
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring);
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations);
23 December: O Emmanuel (O God is with us)
In the Church of England, these “O Antiphons” have traditionally been used as antiphons before and after the canticle Magnificat at Evensong during this period.
Although they are not printed in the Book of Common Prayer, they have long been part of secondary Anglican sources, including hymns. They have a place in contemporary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including Common Worship (the Church of England).
The popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel, see Irish Church Hymnal, No 135) is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons.
The first letters of the titles taken in reverse order form a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,” which translates as “Tomorrow, I will come,” reflecting the theme of the antiphons.
The origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known, they have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church. They have been known in an early form since the sixth century, by the eighth century they were in use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, and were found in many breviaries between the eighth and 16th centuries.
The memory of the ‘O Antiphons’ was retained after the Reformation in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which listed O Sapientia on 16 December as a black letter holy day from 1604.
The “O Antiphons” were first translated from Latin into English by John Henry Newman.
In medieval Benedictine monasteries, the monks arranged the “O Antiphons” with a definite purpose. If we start with the last title and takes the initial letter of each – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – they form the Latin words ero cras, meaning: “Tomorrow, I will come.”
As only one “O Antiphon” was sung each day, the full text of the acrostic was not revealed until the last day (23 December), when it would be interpreted as Christ’s answer to the prayer at the end of each antiphon.
Although the antiphons and their respective dates shown are recognised throughout most of Western Christianity, an alternative medieval practice arose in England, in the Sarum rite of Salisbury Cathedral, moving all of the antiphons forward by one day, so that they began on 16 December. An additional eighth antiphon, O Virgo virginum (O Virgin of Virgins), was then added on 23 December, so that the acrostic became Vero cras, “truly, tomorrow”:
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.
This version of the “O Antiphons” was used in the Church of England until modern times, and is the version found in traditional Church of England liturgical sources, including the English Hymnal and the New English Hymnal.
More recently, however, the Church of England has stepped back from this medieval practice and returned to the more universal norm. The calendar in Common Worship now provides for the seven-fold version of the “O Antiphons,” and not the eight-fold version.
An updated, inclusive-language version of Newman’s translation of the “O Antiphons” is published in the Franciscan Office Book, Celebrating Common Prayer (p. 347).
Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ, and the “O Antiphons” bring intensity to our Advent preparation, and bring it to a joyful conclusion.
The “O Antiphons” come at the end of Advent to tie together the prophetic hopes of a people who have waited not for just three or four weeks for the coming of the Lord, but for whole centuries.
The “O Antiphons” tell us to be patient just a little while longer, and they describe the wonders in store with the coming of Christ.
Each of the “O Antiphons” has a two-fold purpose. First, each one is a title for the coming messiah. Secondly, each one refers to a prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah.
20 December, O Clavis David (O Key of David):
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and sceptre of the house of Israel,
who opens and no one can shut,
who shuts and no one can open:
Come and bring the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
c.f. Isaiah 22: 22; 42: 7; Jeremiah 51: 19; Revelation 3: 7.
I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open (Isaiah 22: 22).
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore (Isaiah 9: 7).
[...] To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house (Isaiah 42: 7).
Times and Seasons suggests the following readings may be used at Evening Prayer on this evening: Psalm 89: 1-34; Isaiah 22: 21-23; Revelation 3: 7-13.
Additional reading and resources:
Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008, Alcuin Liturgy Guides # 5).
William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba Press/APCK, 1993).
Times and Seasons (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute