O come, O come, Emmanuel And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear
This is probably one of the most familiar hymns we sing at Mass during Advent. But did you know that this hymn is centuries old, and that it is based on something called the O Antiphons?
The O Antiphons are mentioned as early as the sixth century A.d., and they had entered common use in liturgical celebrations in Rome by the eighth century. Sometimes called the “Greater Antiphons,” these verses are recited at Vespers, one each evening, between December 17 and December 23. Each antiphon is based on a different title for Jesus taken from the Old Testament— titles like Emmanuel, Key of David, Dayspring, and Wisdom. When gathered together, as they are in this hymn, these titles give voice to the Israelites’ longing for the Messiah, as well as our own longing for Jesus to come—both at Christmas and at the Second Coming.
This year, when you sing, “O Come, O come Emmanuel,” identify the different titles for Jesus and try to ponder what each one means. Know, too, that whenever you sing this hymn, you are joining countless Christians over the centuries who have looked for Jesus’ coming. And not only that, you are joining in the prayer of countless Jews who, even to this day, are longing for the fulfillment of all God’s promises.
The dominant theme of the O Antiphons is one of hoping and waiting for Jesus to come. So as we read and meditate on them, let’s focus our hearts on Jesus as well. Let’s trust that by contemplating these verses, our own anticipation will grow and be rewarded as we invite Jesus to come and be born in our hearts on Christmas.
The Cry in Our Hearts. There are three basic ways that the O Antiphons can help us to get ready for Christmas. First, the simple word “O” emphasizes the sense of desire, even awe, that surrounds these prayers. We are not simply asking Jesus for a favor, we are expressing a deep longing in our hearts. They help us recognize that no matter what happens, the first and most important thing for us is that we have Jesus in our hearts. In sickness or in health, for better or for worse, we need Jesus, for without him we have no hope. And so we cry out, “O come!”
Second, because the O Antiphons highlight different titles for the Messiah, they help open our eyes to who Jesus is. They tell us that Jesus is God and man. They tell us that he has power over heaven and earth. They tell us that he is the wisdom of God and the desire of every person’s heart.
Finally, each antiphon concludes with a plea for Jesus to do a powerful work in our lives when he does come. For instance, the first antiphon asks Jesus to come and teach us “the way to salvation.” The second antiphon asks Jesus: “stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” So we are asking Jesus not just to come but to bring us more deeply into the freedom that he won for us when he first came two thousand years ago.
The O Antiphons are written in the form of a prayer, but they can just as easily become the basis for some activities that you and your family can do as you get ready for Christmas.
Below we have some suggestions for how you can help bring these simple verses to life in your home so that everyone can open their hearts for Jesus’ coming.
Praying the O Antiphons. Beginning on December 17, establish a time when you will focus on the antiphon for each day. Maybe you can begin with the Lord’s Prayer or sing the verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that fits with that day’s antiphon. Then read the antiphon for the day, followed by one or two of the related Scripture passages. (You can find these in the article O Come! The O Antiphons.)
Then have some fun with the activities listed below, either with your family or with some friends, or even by yourself as a way of personal prayer.
December 17—O Wisdom. Try to recall the best and worst decisions you ever made. While we all like the way our best decisions work out, we probably gain the most wisdom from our biggest mistakes. So identify and explain how the Lord has given you wisdom through your decisions. Ask everyone to try to identify how God’s grace has made them wiser as well.
December 18—O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel. Light a candle and read the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3. Let the flame of that candle remind you of the way God first revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. Think, also, of the day he gave Moses the Ten Commandments, “in cloud and majesty and awe” as the hymn says. Read the commandments together and vow to keep them better. If you have a fireplace, you may also want to roast marshmallows or share some popcorn to celebrate!
December 19—O Flower of Jesse’s Stem. Legend has it that a Mexican girl named Maria was sad because she was too poor to buy any flowers to present to baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. But as she walked sadly to the church that night, an angel appeared and told her to pick some of the weeds by the side of the road. When Maria brought her weeds into the church and placed them by the manger, they were changed into beautiful scarlet flowers—poinsettias, to be exact.
When you gather as a family, share this legend and talk about the poinsettia. Talk about the way this flower—and all things with roots and stems—grows and flourishes with the help of water and sunlight. Then invite each person to share one way that the Lord has helped them to grow and flourish over this past year.
December 20—O Key of David. This is a perfect opportunity to pray for all the people in prison. Try to do something that gives your family a taste of being locked up and then set free. Gather everyone in a darkened room. Close the doors behind you, and spin everyone around so that they lose their sense of place. Then see who can find the door and get out the quickest—and the safest! Then have each person speak about some “prison” that they want to get out of—a prison of anger or moodiness or resentment or laziness, or some other prison. Jesus really wants to set us free!
December 21—O Radiant Dawn. Take an outing tonight. Go around and look at the Christmas lights that are on display in your town or neighborhood. And when you see the most dramatic displays—the ones that obviously took a lot of preparation—let them remind you of all the work that God put in preparing for the day when Jesus would bring his own light into the world. Or take a look into the night sky and gaze at the stars. Look at the magnificence of these heavenly lights, and think about how the light of Jesus’ presence is far brighter and far more glorious.
December 22—O King of All the Nations. Bake a crown cake together as a family and dedicate it to Jesus. Many recipes are available on the Internet. Jesus is also called the Keystone in this verse, so perhaps you can try building something out of toy blocks or Legos or modeling clay. Talk about how Jesus is the foundation, the cornerstone, for your family—and for all the universe!
December 23—O Emmanuel. Talk about how the name Emmanuel means “God is with us.” And since Jesus is with us in a special way in the Blessed Sacrament, try as a family to spend some time in church praying before the tabernacle. If your parish has Eucharistic adoration, go and kneel before the Lord in the Host. Use this time to tell Jesus how much you love him. While you’re there, ask every family member to make a list of three or more prayers of petition asking for God’s help. Then, thank him for coming to you on Christmas Day. Tell him that you want him to come into your hearts and into your home.
Ero Cras. Whoever put the O Antiphons together clearly set out to have a little bit of fun. Working backward from December 23 to December 17, the first letter of each Latin title of Jesus spells out a sentence: Ero cras.(Emmanuel, Rex; Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia). In Latin, ero cras means “I am coming tomorrow”—on Christmas Eve.
If you pray the O Antiphons with your family during the last week of Advent, you’ll find your own heart joining in the chant: “Come, Lord Jesus!” He’s almost here, and you have made yourself ready for him.