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Social Doctrine in the O Antiphons
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2018


The liturgy of the Advent and Christmas seasons, reveal many aspects of our faith. Hidden among them are reflections relevant to the church’s social doctrine. The O’ Antiphons are one example.

The O’ Antiphons are short chants sung from December 17 through December 23. Each antiphon consists of three parts. Each starts with a call to Christ using a messianic title from the Old Testament. The call is followed by imagery taken from the prophesies of Isaiah. Each chant ends with a plea for the Messiah to “come.” Here are some key words and phrases in the O’ Antiphons that point to the social doctrine of the church.

December 17
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!


This antiphon reminds us that God is the source of wisdom and that knowledge alone is not sufficient. The use of knowledge — our reason — must be guided by God’s wisdom. This is called the forming of conscience, which is the ability to recognize the moral quality of an act. A well-formed conscience equips us to address political questions.

Note also the reminder that God guides creation with power and love. All creation belongs to God. We are tasked with being responsible steward’s of his creation.

December 18
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. These commandments provide the foundation of all law. They reveal not only our fidelity with God, but also the basis of right relations between each other. These truths are expressed in the natural law written into our hearts and are knowable through human reason by all persons of good will. This understanding of the law provides the basis of good government.

The “come” clause calls for Christ to rescue us. This can be understood in two ways. First, only through Christ, the fulfillment of the law, we are truly rescued. Second, it reminds us that without sound laws rooted in God’s truth we are “lost in the wilderness” like the people of Israel.

December 19
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!


Here again we see the need for rescue. Also, the antiphon reminds us of God’s love. That love, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in his encyclicals, should motivate political action.

December 20
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!


The obvious message of this antiphon is that Christ is the gate or “door” to eternal life. (Jn 10:9). It also calls us to remember those who are imprisoned now, whether behind actual bars, or trapped in addiction, poverty, affliction, or subjugation.

In Old Testament times, the “gate” was the place where people brought their legal pleas. Judges stood at the gates to decide disputes. The antiphon brings to mind the need to judge with mercy, fairness, and without any undue partiality toward race, ethnicity, sex, immigration status, or nationality.

December 21
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.


Justice permeates the social teachings of the church. It means giving what is due — opposed to what is deserved — to God and others. Christ, the “sun of justice” shines light on and reveals what is due, including what is due to a person by virtue of being a human person created in the image of God.

December 22
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!


This antiphon subtly points to the Incarnation. God became man, the very creature that he formed from the dust. The fact that the divine became human has enormous implications for how we treat one another, including why laws should respect the human body, the biological basis of gender, the true nature of marriage, and the right to life.

December 23
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

This antiphon repeats three of the messages in the previous antiphons. Emmanuel means “God with us,” pointing to the Incarnation. The antiphon also points again to the consequences of God as “king” and “giver of law.”

The last clause is particularly important. As Christians we must work for justice to build his kingdom on earth. True salvation, however, comes only through Christ. No earthly ideology, political platform, or economic system will create heaven on earth. Our salvation is with Him and through Him. Therefore, we continually walk as pilgrims of peace and justice here on earth while continually pleading, “Come to save us, Lord our God.”