In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah, calling to him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key O Light! come to us!

The evening prayer, also know as Vespers, always includes the great prayer of Mary known as the Magnificat. Each day, the Magnificat is preceded by a short verse or “antiphon” that links the prayer to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the antiphons before the Magnificat are very special. Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.

These moving “O Antiphons” were composed when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah, which looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of scriptural images. The great “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

Each of the O Antiphons highlights a different 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. Malcolm writes,

“The second of the Advent Antiphons, O Adonai, touches on the ancient title of God himself, who was called Adonai, Lord, because his sacred name, the four letters known as ‘The Tetragramaton’, could not be uttered by unworthy human beings without blasphemy. But the Advent Hope, indeed, the Advent miracle was that this unknowable, un-namable, utterly holy Lord, chose out of His own free will and out of love for us, to be known, to bear a name, and to meet us where we are. The antiphon touches on the mysterious and awesome manifestations of God on the mountain in the sign of the burning bush. For early Christians this bush, full of he fire of God yet still itself and unconsumed, was a sign of the Lord Christ who would come, filled with God and yet in mortal flesh unconsumed.”

O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,
Unseeable, you gave yourself away,
The Adonai, the Tetragramaton
Grew by a wayside in the light of day.
O you who dared to be a tribal God,
To own a language, people and a place,
Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,
If so you might be met with face to face,
Come to us here, who would not find you there,
Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,
Who heard no more than thunder in the air,
Who marked the mere events and not the myth.
Touch the bare branches of our unbelief
And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

This sonnet based on the second O Antiphon is composed by Malcolm Guite.