The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Advent and the Greater Antiphons To The Magnificat


Staley, The Liturgical Year

For Advent

Words: Veni, Veni, Emanuel (the "O" Antiphons),
Authorship Unknown, 8th Century Latin;
Published: Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, Köln, 1710.

Music: "Veni Emmanuel," 15th Century French Plain Song melody,
Arranged and harmonized by Thomas Helmore in
Hymnal Noted, Part II (London: 1856)
Based on a 15th Century French Processional
(Some sources give a Gregorian, 8th Century origin.)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML
Melody Only: MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Source: Vernon Staley, The Liturgical Year - an explanation of the Origin, History & Significance of the Festival Days & Fasting Days of The English Church (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd, 1907).

See: Notes on the Great O Antiphons and Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

Chapter V, Advent, pp. 66-71.

In the fifth century Advent seems to have been assimilated to Lent, being regarded as a kind of winter Lent, and kept as a time of fasting for forty days and even longer, from Martinmas to Christmas, as we have said above. It is certain, however, that the more ancient liturgical documents do not give to Advent the character of fasting and penitence. In the offices of the Church Alleluia was retained, a feature which is absent from occasions of penitence and fasting: whilst at Rome, as late as the twelfth century, Gloria in excelsis was sung, and white vestments used, things significant of joy.

The thought of the Second Advent of our Lord to Judgment is not so prominent in the old liturgical books as it is in the Book of Common Prayer.

For English Church people Advent is not a time of fasting—the only days upon which they are called upon to fast are stated in the Table of Fasts ; and Advent is not there named as a fasting season—but it is to be regarded, according to the more ancient view, as a time of vigilance, expectation and hope, in regard to our Lord's first coming to save ; and of heart-searching and penitence, in regard to his second coming to judge the world. As Dom Cabrol so well expresses it—" It is the near approach of the Son of God in the flesh for which one must prepare oneself with greater watchfulness, and by the practice of works of charity : it is the voice of the prophets announcing the Messiah who comes : it is the world's awaiting its Redeemer, sighing as the parched ground for the dew of heaven : it is St. Paul exhorting the faithful, awakening them from their sleep upon the vigil of the coming of Christ : it is John Baptist, the last of the long line of prophets, who cries in the wilderness, ' Prepare ye the way of the Lord ' : it is Mary, to whom the angel has announced that the Messiah shall be born of her : it is the second advent, at the end of the world, when Christ shall come, no longer under the form of a little child with hands full of mercies for those whom He comes to redeem, but as the awful Judge of the living and the dead, surrounded by the hosts of heaven, and sitting on the right hand of the Father, to give to the just their reward, and to the guilty eternal punishment."1

The liturgical features of Advent, according to the English rite, are as follows :—

Opposite December 16 in the Kalendar, we find the term O Sapientia. This is not, as some in ignorance might suppose, the name of a saint, but the commencement of the first of the Greater Anthems which, before the Reformation, were sung daily both before and after the Magnificat at Vespers in Advent, from December 16 till the day before Christmas eve (December 21, St. Thomas' day, had its own antiphon). They are called also the " O's of Advent, " since they each commence with " O, " and were formerly a note worthy feature of the Advent season. They are all addressed to Christ. A trace of these " O's " remains, as we have said, in the English Kalendar, in continuity with the entry in the Kalendar of the Sarum Breviary, Dec. 16, Hic incipit O Sapientia ["This begins 'O Sapientia.' "] In the Kalendar prefixed to Bishop Cosin's A Collection of Private Devotions (a.d. 1627), stands, opposite December 16, "O Sapientia, an Antiphona, anciently sung in the Church (for the honour of Christ's Advent) from this day till Christmas eve."3

The following quotations from the Legenda Aurea, a famous mediaeval book containing the Lives of the Saints, gives the seven Greater Antiphons, and some comments on each of them :—

O Sovereign Wisdom, descending from the mouth of the Most High, come to us and teach us the way of prudence. And inasmuch as it is insufficient for us to be taught, we ask in the second, O Sovereign Head and Prince of the house of Israel, come and evenbye us by thy power with arms outstretched. But little should it profit us to be [p 71] taught and again-bought, if yet we are holden in prison, fast-shut up. And therefore we ask to be delivered, saying, O Root of Jesse, come and deliver us, and tarry not. And what availeth it that prisoners be bought again and delivered, if they are not unbound, and free to go where they will ? And therefore we ask that we may be unbound and loosed from all bands of sin, when we cry in the fourth anthem, O Key of David, that closeth that no man may open, and openest that no man may shut, come to us and deliver the prisoner out of the prison, who sitteth in darkness and shadow of death. For they that have been long in prison and dark places cannot see clearly, but have eyes that are dim. There fore, after we are delivered from prison, it is needful that our eyes be made clear and our sight illuminated, that we may see where we should go. And therefore we cry in the fifth anthem, O Orient, the Splendour of the Eternal Light, come and enlighten those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. And if we were taught, illuminated, unbound, and bought, what should it avail us unless we be saved ? And therefore we say the two last anthems, 0 thou King of nations, come and save the men whom thou hast formed of the dust of the earth : O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, our Lord and God, come and save us.—Legenda Aurea, " Of the Advent of our Lord."

For the full text of the Greater Antiphons, see Appendix A., p. 319. [Reproduced below]

Though, as we have said, Advent is not a fasting season of obligation, it is nevertheless not unnecessary to call attention to the fast of Christmas eve which closes it : because it is a day which is often sadly broken by feasting as the great night of expectation draws nigh. " The Vigil before the Nativity of our Lord " stands first in the Table of Vigils in the Book of Common Prayer, and its observance is therefore a matter of obligation.

[End of Chapter V, Advent]




Source: Staley, The Liturgical Year, Appendix A. The Greater Antiphons, pp. 219-220.

Formerly sung from December 16 to 23 ; with references to passages of Holy Scripture containing or illustrating the titles of our Lord on which each antiphon is based.4

December 16. [Eccles. xxiv. 3 ; Wisd. viii. I. Compare 1 Cor. i. 24 ; Prov. i.-ix.]
O Wisdom, which didst come forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from the one end of all things to the other, and ordering them with sweetness and might : Come, that Thou mayest teach us the way of understanding.

December 17. [Exod. iii. 14; St. John viii. 58.]
O LORD of lords, and Leader of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in a flame of fire in the bush, and gavest Thy law in Sinai : Come, that Thou mayest redeem us with Thy stretched- out arm.

December 18. [Isai. xi. 10; Rev. xxii. 16.]
O ROOT of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, and to whom the Gentiles shall seek : Come, that Thou mayest deliver us ; tarry not, we beseech Thee.

December 19. [Isai. xxii. 22; Rev. iii. 7; Isai. xlii. 7.]
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel : Thou Who openest and no man shutteth, Who shuttest and no man openeth : Come, that Thou mayest bring forth from the prison-house him that is bound, sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.

December 20. [Wisd. vii. 26 ; Heb. i. 3 ; Mai. iv. 2.]
O Dawning Brightness of the everlasting Light, and Sun of Righteousness : Come, that Thou mayest enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

[December 21. St. Thomas' day, had its own special antiphon.]

December 22. [Hag. ii. 7.]
O King and Desire of all nations, the Corner stone uniting all in one : Come, that Thou mayest save man, whom Thou hast formed out of the ground by Thy hand.

December 23. [Isai. vii. 14 ; Matt. i. 23.]
O Emmanuel, our King and our Lawgiver, the Expectation and the Saviour of the Gentiles : Come, that Thou mayest save us, O Lord our God.


1. Did. d'Archeol. et de Lit., sub ' Avent,' col. 3227. Return

2. "The time of the Advent, or coming of our Lord into this world, is hallowed in holy Church, the time of four weeks, in betokening of four divers comings. The first was when He came and appeared in human nature and flesh. The second is in the heart and conscience. The third is at death. The fourth is at the last judgment. The last week is but seldom accomplished (or concluded) ; for the glory of the saints which shall be given at the last coming (of Christ) shall never end or finish."—Legenda Aurea, "Of the Advent of our Lord." Return

3. Cosin's Works, ii. p. 103. Return

4. See Blunt, Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 1885, pp. 349, 250.  Return


The Aurea Legenda by Jacobus de Voragine was compiled in 1275. It was translated into English by William Caxton in 1483 and given the title The Golden Legend. The text was updated by F.S. Ellis and published in seven volumes in 1900. All seven volumes are available from The Internet Archive; Volume 1 is at ; links to volumes 2 through 7 are at the bottom of that page. Other copies in other formats are widely available.

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