What are the O Antiphons?
You know them (yes, you do!) but read ahead and learn a little more...
Part of the church's Liturgy of the Hours is Evening Prayer. The gospel for Evening Prayer is always the same one: the Magnificat, or Mary's Song of Praise found in Luke 1:46-55. In the Roman Liturgy of the Hours the Magnificat begins and closes with an antiphon, a verse which relates to the season or feast being celebrated. Among the most beautiful antiphons of all are the those for the seven days (December 17 - December 23) leading up to Christmas Eve, each antiphon beginning with "O."
You know these antiphons as the verses of the familiar O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
See the widget at the top of the sidebar, Songs for Advent, for several settings of this piece, listed under "O Come, O Come," and under "Veni, Veni."
(I told you that you knew them!)
Fr. William Saunders offers us some background on the origin of these texts:
The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil.
The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah...