The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The O Antiphons

For Advent

Words: Veni, Veni, Emanuel (the "O" Antiphons),
Authorship Unknown, 8th Century Latin;
Published As A Hymn in Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, 7th Edition, Köln, 1710.

Music: "Veni Emmanuel," Based on a 15th Century French Processional,
Arranged by Rev. Thomas Helmore  and harmonized by Rev. S. S. Greatheed in
Hymnal Noted, Part II (London: 1856)
and

Accompanying Harmonies to the Hymnal Noted-Part II
(London: 1858)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML
Melody Only: MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Meter: 88 88 88

See: Notes on Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

English prose translations are by Cardinal John Henry Newman from Tracts for the Times, No. 75 (Vol.3), pp. 183, 206-207, as quoted by Alfred S. Cook, The Christ Of Cynewulf, pp. 71-72. "Alternate Prose Translations" are also provided; translator unknown.

Scriptural citations from Fr. William Saunders, "What Are the ’O Antiphons’?" (and also under the title "A Seven-Fold Announcement"), and Cook, The Christ of Cynewulf, pp. 72-114.

This is one of the oldest of Christian prayers — referred to as the "O" Antiphons, the "Greater" Antiphons, and "The Seven O’s."

These seven antiphons were recited as a part of the evening Vespers prayers of the Catholic Church before and after The Magnificat in the Octave before Christmas, December 17 to 23 (the Vespers for Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, are those for the Christmas Vigil). Prior to the Reformation, it was sung from 16 to 23 December, omitting St. Thomas’ Day (December 21). These seven days are also known as the Greater Ferias.

Each of the seven stanzas addressed the Messiah by one of his titles, each one praising the coming of the Savior by a different name, and closing with petitions appropriate to the title. Thus:

Address:
     O EMMANUEL, God with us,
Praise:
     Our King and Lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Saviour:
Closing Petition:

     COME to save us, O Lord our God. Amen.

One verse was sung or chanted each evening (as opposed to being sung together as a single hymn, as we do today).

According to one source, on December 17th the Abbot would intone the first Antiphon, O Sapientia. On successive nights, each principal officer of the monastery would take his turn with another of the Antiphons. A After the service, the officer was expected to provide some sort of treat, usually edible, for all the monks.

The antiphons date back at least to the reign of Charlemagne (771-814), and the 439 lines of the English poem Christ, by Cynewulf (c. 800), are described as a loose translation and elaboration of the Antiphons. B One source stated that Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. C Julian reports that two 11th century copies can be found in manuscripts in the British Museum and the Bodleian. 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.

At least two — and up to five — additional verses were later added to the original seven. D However, it is clear that these seven were designed as a group, since their initial letters (ignoring the 'O' that precedes each line) spell out the reverse acrostic 'SARCORE' — 'ero cras', that is, "I shall be [with you] tomorrow."

According to some sources, by the 12th or 13th century, but no later than the eighteenth century, five of the verses had been put together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain "Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel" ("Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel; Shall come to thee, O Israel") (there was no refrain in the original Latin chant). The earliest known metrical form of the "O" Antiphons was a Latin version in an Appendix of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, (Cologne, 1710, from the Tridentine rite).

In 1851, it was translated by and published in Rev. John Mason Neale’s Medieval Hymns. The original title was "Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel." It was revised and published in 1854 in Neale and Thomas Helmore’s second edition of Hymnal Noted. It was revised again for publication in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1859) with the more familiar title of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." "Emmanuel" (or "Immanuel") is the name of the Messiah as prophesied by the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (see Isaiah 7:14, quoted in Matthew 1:23). There have been numerous other translations, notably by Thomas Alexander Lacey and Henry Sloane Coffin.

English prose translations are by Cardinal John Henry Newman from Tracts for the Times, No. 75 (Vol.3), pp. 183, 206-207, as quoted by Alfred S. Cook, The Christ Of Cynewulf, pp. 71-72. "Alternate Prose Translations" are also provided; translator unknown.

Scriptural citations from Fr. William Saunders, "What Are the ’O Antiphons’?" (and also under the title "A Seven-Fold Announcement"), and Cook, The Christ of Cynewulf, pp. 72-114.

December 17: "O Sapientia..." (O Wisdom)

Prose Version:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O eternal Wisdom, which proceedest from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end of creation unto the other, mightily and harmoniously disposing all things: come Thou to teach us the way of understanding.

Alternate Prose Translation: O WISDOM, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: COME, and teach us the way of prudence.

Poetic Version:

Veni, O Sapientia,
Quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae
Ut doceas et gloriae.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
Who madest all in earth and sky,
Creating man from dust and clay:
To us reveal Salvation’s way.

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 11:2-3: "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord."

Isaiah 28:29: "Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom."

See: Ecclus. 24:5; Wisd. 8:1; Isa. 40:14. See also Proverbs 1:20; 8; 9 and I Corinthians 1:30.

December 18: "O Adonai..." (O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel)

Prose Version:

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord, and Ruler of the House of Israel, who appearedst unto Moses in the flame of a burning bush, and gavest to him the Law in Sinai: Come to redeem us with a stretched out arm.

Alternate Prose Translation: O LORD AND RULER of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: COME, and redeem us with outstretched arms.

Poetic Version:

Veni, Veni, Adonai,
Qui populo in Sinai
Legem dedisti vertice
In maiestate gloriae.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 11:4-5: "But He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips."

Isaiah 33:22: "Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us."

See also Exodus 3; Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6.

December 19: "O Radix Jesse..." (O Root of Jesse)

Prose Version:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur; veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardere.

O Root of Jesse, who art placed for a sign of the people, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, whom the Gentiles shall supplicate: come Thou to deliver us, do not tarry.

Alternate Prose Translation: O ROOT OF JESSE, which stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: COME, to deliver us, and tarry not.

Poetic Version:

Veni, O Jesse Virgula,
Ex hostis tuos ungula,
De spectu tuos tartari
Educ et antro barathri..

O come, O 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

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 11:1: "But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom."

Isaiah 11:10: "On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious."

Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:1).

See: Isa. 52:15; Heb. 10:37. See also Romans 15:12; Revelation 5:5.

December 20: "O Clavis David..." (O Key of David):

Prose Version:

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 openest and none shutteth, who shuttest and none openeth: come Thou, and bring forth the captive from the house of bondage, who sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Alternate Prose Translation: O KEY OF DAVID, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: COME, and bring forth the captive from his prison, he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Poetic Version:

Veni, Clavis Davidica,
regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum,
et claude vias inferum.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 22:22: "And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open."

Isaiah 9:6:"His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over His kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever."

See: Rev. 3:7; Gen. 49:10; Isa. 42: 7. See also Revelation 3:7.

December 21: "O Oriens..." (O Dawn of the East (Dayspring))

Prose Version:

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentis in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Rising Brightness of the Everlasting Light and Sun of Righteousness: come Thou and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Alternate Prose Translation: O DAWN OF THE EAST, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Justice: COME, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Poetic Version:

Veni, Veni O Oriens,
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque mortis tenebras.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds, and bring us light!

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 9:1: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown."

See also Luke 1:78-79; Malachi 4:2.

December 22: "O Rex..." (O King of the Gentiles (Nations))

Prose Version:

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unem: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O King and the Desire of all nations, and chief Corner-stone, who makest two to be one: come Thou and save man whom Thou formedst from the clay.

Alternate Prose Translation: O KING OF THE GENTILES and their desired One, the Cornerstone that makes both one: COME, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.

Poetic Version:

Veni, Veni, Rex Gentium,
Veni, Redemptor omnium,
Ut salvas tuos famulos
Peccati sibi conscios..

O come, Desire of nations, show
Thy Kingly rein on earth below;
Thou Corner-stone, uniting all,
Restore the ruin of our fall.

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 9:5: "For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace."

Isaiah 2:4: "He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again."

See Jeremiah 10:7; Hag. 2:7; Eph. 2:14; Gen. 2:7; Tob. 8:8. See also Revelation 15:3; Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; I Peter 2:6.

December 23: "O Emmanuel..." (God With Us)

Prose Version:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legisfer noster, expectatio gentium, et Salvator erum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the gatherer of the people and their Saviour: come Thou to save us, O Lord our God.

Alternate Prose Translation: O EMMANUEL, God with us, Our King and Lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Saviour: COME to save us, O Lord our God.

Poetic Version:

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exsilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

O come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Scriptural Citations:

Isaiah 7:14: "The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel."

See: Isa. 33:22; Gen. 49:10; Isa. 37:10. See also Isaiah 8:8; Matthew 1:23; Haggai 2:7.

"Emmanuel" means "God is with us."

Ronald M. Clancy, in Best-Loved Christmas Carols (p. 80, 2000), gives a different Biblical citation to some of the verses.

An additional prose translation can be found in The English Hymnal, 1906, #734, and the Hymnal Noted, 1856, pp. 207-9. See: The Great Advent Antiphons. A series of hymns based on the Great O's is also found in The Hymnary (1872), pp. 100-104.

In Advent, Abbott Prosper Louis Guéranger, O.S.B., explored numerous topics relative to that season, including the seven Great Antiphons (plus translations of four "added" antiphons). Advent is volume 1 of the 15-volume The Liturgical Year, begun circa 1841. Translation by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B., circa 1867. Guéranger's Preface: The Commencement of the Great Antiphons. His commentaries on the Great Antiphons:

See: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel - Version 1. See also Christ by Cynewulf, The Prose Antiphons and The Great Advent Antiphons.

Two hymns in a similar vein are Crown Him With Many Crowns and O Quickly Come, Dread Judge of All, where Jesus is also addressed by some of his titles, i.e., "Lord of life," "Lord of peace," "Lord of love," etc.

John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore, eds., Hymnal Noted - Parts I and II. London: Novello, 1856.

The Greater Antiphons, pp. 207-209.

Notes:

A. And in this manner is similar to the assignment of readings in the modern Festival of Nine Lessons And Carols at King's College. See generally Carol Services. Return

B. Robert Boenig, Anglo-Saxon Spirituality, p. 53. Part I of the poem "Christ" relates to the Advent, and is described as a loose translation and elaboration of the O Antiphons. However, only part II (Ascension) is now believed by some to be the work of Cynewulf; the authorship of parts I and III (The Second Coming) are less certain. Boenig contains a poetic translation (pages 217-229), with excellent explanatory notes (pages 307-311). The Charles Kennedy prose translation can be seen at Cynewulf-Christ-Kennedy (http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/Christ_Kennedy.pdf; accessed March 24, 2007). Also see the translation by Charles Huntington Whitman of Part I. Advent (http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=l&p=c&a=p&ID=28087&c=778; accessed March 28, 2007). For additional notes, see: Christ by Cynewulf. This poem is found in the Exeter Book of the 11th century, a gift by Bishop Leofwine in 1072 to the Exeter cathedral library. Return

C. The reference here concerns the writings of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (Roman statesman and philosopher, ca. 480-524; link is to his biography in the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent). Neither that source, nor others with similar references, have identified the location of this allusion. My best guess would be his "De institutione musica" (The Fundamentals of Music). A Latin copy of De institutione musica, liber IV available on-line at Liber IV (http://www.chmtl.indiana.edu/tml/6th-8th/BOEMUS4_TEXT.html; accessed April 1, 2007). I have been unable to locate an on-line English translation. However, I've found references to the book Fundamentals of Music, trans. Calvin M. Bower, ed. Claude V. Palisca (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); I will attempt to borrow a copy on inter-library loan. Please check back. Return

D. Some service books contained eight antiphons, the Sarum Breviary had nine antiphons, and in some traditions, there were twelve. The eighth and ninth additional antiphons were:

8. O Virgo virginum quomodo fied istud? quia nec primum tui similis visa est, nec habebis sequentum . Translation by Dom Guéranger: "O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? for never was there one like thee, nor will there ever be." An antiphon to Mary, the mother of Jesus, added, according to Julian, by Amalarius, and found in the Sarum, York, and Hereford Breviaries. According to Cook, it is included for the feast of the Expectation of the Virgin, Dec. 18.

9. O Thoma Didyme, qui Christum meruisti cernere: te precibus rogamus altisonis, succurre nobis miseris, ne damnemur cum impils in Adventu Judicis (an antiphon to St. Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day is December 21, found in the Sarum Breviary).

When these two are added (or the antiphon O Gabriel), some churches believe that the nine orders of angels are signified. For more, see Christ by Cynewulf. Return

The Magnificat (The Canticle of the Blessed Virgin), Luke 1:46-55:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God My Saviour;
Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid;
for, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
And his mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with all good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant,
mindful of his mercy —
Even as he spoke to our fathers —
to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
Glory be to the Father.

Compare: Ave Maria. Return

Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (KJV) Return

Matthew 1:23: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. (KJV) Return

Bibliography

All web sites accessed between March 20 and 23, 2002.

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