“O Emmanuel. O God with us.” This is the “O Antiphon,” one of seven, with which we are most familiar, sung in that marvelous hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” These Latin texts echo the names of Christ revealed in Scripture and are sung the last week of Advent before Christmas Eve.
These antiphons have been sung since the eighth century. When we sing them, we are not only connected to the Roman Church 13 centuries ago but also to prayers from the Old Testament, as they draw from ancient messianic imagery. These names for the Christ are rich in theology and tell us exactly who he is, calling him with the imperative, “come,” or “O.”
The antiphons are based on Isaiah’s prophecies, and the names are: 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 Dayspring), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) and O Emmanuel (O God with Us). Each name reveals the longing of the Israelites and us as a Church as we await the Lord’s return.
I love how liturgy returns these names to my lips. Each year, I forget. I forget who Jesus is. Many who do not know Jesus misunderstand or misrepresent his character. Some tell us he is someone he is not. This has been happening for centuries. It should not surprise me. But each year, I whisper the names in the O Antiphons and feel emboldened. I remember who he truly is. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (14:13–14). These names of God reveal his power.
When I pray the antiphons, they become part of my conversation with Jesus. He reminds me who he is. I am reminded that this is the spirit I have within me, O Emmanuel. I remember that he was the one foretold: O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David, O Rex Gentium. In O Oriens, I am reminded that he has been there always, even when the world was dark and void, and in it, God brought his glorious light. And I evoke his wisdom and authority through invoking O Sapientia and O Adonai over all, especially me.
In praying these names, I know God is faithful, not just in my life but throughout the ages. I get to know Jesus better. And I await in joyful expectation his return.