Illuminated initial "O", 13th century.

[Unknown.] Initial O: Christ, late 13th century, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment. Leaf: 58.3 × 40.2 cm (22 15/16 × 15 13/16 in.), Ms. Ludwig VI 6, fol. 79v. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Quick! Can you list a phrase or sentence that begins with the word “O”?

There are many Advent hymns, Christmas carols, and holiday songs that begin with an “O”:

  • “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
  • “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
  • “O Tannenbaum”

Those familiar with the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible recognize

  • “O ye of little faith” (Mt 6:30, 8:26, 16:8; Lk 12:28) )
  • “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:1)

Over the centuries, poets and songwriters have used the word “O” in various ways, and for various effects:

  • “O Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet II.i.75)
  • “O Rose, thou art sick” (Blake, “The Sick Rose”)
  • “O O O O that Shakespaherian rag” (T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 128)

Even our national anthem begins with an “O” (“O say, can you see…”).

Ask this question now of a Poor Clare, or anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours, and you are likely to receive a warm smile and a list:

  • 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 Radiant Dawn)
  • O Rex Gentium  (O King of the Nation)
  • O Emmanuel

These seven addresses to the Messiah are the “O Antiphons” that are sung before and after the Magnificat at Evening Prayer from December 17th through the 23rd. They have been part of the Church’s prayer for over a thousand years and are a cherished component of this liturgical season. Nuns, priests, friars, sisters, and all who pray the Divine Office look forward to them each year; each antiphon is a gift as we anticipate the celebration of Christmas.

These seven antiphons are also rich sources for prayer and meditation. Each begins with a specific title for the Messiah and draws on passages from Isaiah and other scriptural verses. They are wonderful texts for lectio divina.

The antiphons themselves formed the basis for the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which dates from the 12th or 13th century.

But why “O” instead of “Oh”?

“O” isn’t just a variant spelling of “Oh.” Like “Oh,” it is an exclamation, but in the past, writers used it when they were directly addressing a particular person or thing; “O” is the vocative case of “Oh,” in other words.1 “O” has been used through the centuries to imply a connection with someone or something as well as some form of emotion, such as wonder, surprise, praise, delight, joy, yearning, and even love.

If you interpret the initial “O” as an exclamation only, and a somewhat archaic one at that, you may miss the full meaning of these antiphons. It’s better to interpret each “O” as a form of address, an appeal to and affirmation of the Christ, who became incarnate and who will come again at the end of time. “O” acknowledges, with wonder, the close, personal relationship that God has with each of us. “O” petitions and greets the Messiah. We use the word “O,” as children of God, to address Jesus, the Son of God; “O” can imply the same close relationship that Jesus stressed when he taught us to pray to God as “Our Father.” “O” connotes proximity, imminence, presence.

This year, as you sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” remember that “O” isn’t just an archaic, poetic device; it’s your personal prayer to God, your appeal to your Savior and Lord who is always near, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Come, O Lord, our God!


1 “O, int. and n.2.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018, Accessed 13 December 2018.