Today, December 17 begins what is traditionally known as the “Octave of Christmas.” For each of these seven days there is an ancient chant or Antiphon focused around one of the names or attributes of Christ. Just when the secular Christmas season is working itself up into a frenzy of shopping, cooking, parties, etc., thees ancient liturgies invite us to slow down and savor Christ.
Here are some good resources for learning about the Antiphons:
The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. […] The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a 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. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. […] According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.
and also at the Catholic Encyclopedia
At RC.Net there is an excellent article by Jeanne Kun: Praising the Names of Jesus: The Antiphons of Advent. Here’s an excerpt, but I highly recommend the whole short article!
It is especially in the final week of Advent that our attention is fixed on the messianic promises proclaimed by the ancient prophets of Israel. A distinctive feature of the Liturgy of the Hours in this week preceding the Christmas vigil is the antiphon sung at Vespers (evening prayer) before and after the recitation of the Magnificat. Originally incorporated into the monastic office in the Middle Ages, these antiphons, often called the “Greater Antiphons” or the “O Antiphons”, are also echoed in the daily lectionary as the verse for the gospel acclamation during this week. They add a mood of eager expectation to the liturgy that builds throughout these seven days and climaxes at Christmas.
The O Antiphons have been described as “a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God”. They “create a poetry that fills the liturgy with its splendor”, and their composer shows “a magnificent command of the Bible’s wealth of motifs”. The antiphons are, in fact, a collage of Old Testament types of Christ. Their predominant theme is messianic, stressing the hope of the Savior’s coming. Jesus is invoked by various titles, mainly taken from the prophet Isaiah. The sequence progresses historically, from the beginning, before creation, to the very gates of Bethlehem.
In their structure, each of the seven antiphons follows the same pattern, resembling a traditional liturgical prayer. Each O Antiphon begins with an invocation of the expected Messiah, followed by praise of him under one of his particular titles. Each ends with a petition for God’s people, relevant to the title by which he is addressed, and the cry for him to “Come”.
A very helpful table with the Latin & English translation of each Antiphon as well as Scriptures that correspond with each theme.
I hope to post a special entry for each antiphon during each day of the Octave.