The O Antiphons are derived from Bible verses used in mediaeval times. They are also known as the Greater Antiphons or Seven Os.

These verses are referred to in the haunting Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

‘O’ in this case refers to the octave — eight days — before Christmas, although exceptions have been made for December 21, St Thomas’s feast day.

I extend my prayers and best wishes to all of us who were born on this special day; may you have a day free of combination gifts (birthday-Christmas)!

December 24 is another exception as normally the Christmas Eve — vigil — readings were used. Therefore, although we speak of an octave, it was often, in practice, seven days (possibly six) of Old Testament prophecy — hence Seven Os — principally from the Book of Isaiah.

I once met a Presbyterian minister’s daughter from Scotland. She found Isaiah particularly off-putting and gloomy. Yet, it is one of my favourite books of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. As I explained to her, it gave me hope in the midst of despair. It is to be hoped that these readings — December 17, 18, 19 and 20 — do the same for you as we approach this joyous day.

In the northern hemisphere, December 21 — Winter Solstice — is the shortest day of the year. By now, those of us living in this part of the world long for light — and lots of it.

There is one supreme Light, Sun — and Son — whom we should seek, Jesus Christ. The O Antiphons for this day describe the situation as follows (emphases mine):

Prose Version:

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentis in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Rising Brightness of the Everlasting Light and Sun of Righteousness: come Thou and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Alternate Prose Translation: O DAWN OF THE EAST, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Justice: COME, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Poetic Version:

Veni, Veni O Oriens,
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque mortis tenebras.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds, and bring us light!

These allude to living not only in a physical darkness but also in a spiritual one.

It seems that the O Antiphons page cited above refers to Isaiah 9:2 instead of 9:1, by the way. Isaiah 9:2 reads as follows (English Standard Version):

2 The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
   on them has light shined.

Pedants will note that ‘shined’ also appears in the King James Version instead of ‘shone’.

Below are three Bible commentaries which I hope will enlighten Isaiah’s prophecy of the arrival of the Son of God, the Messiah. There is more information at the links provided.

Whilst these pertained to Jews at the time in the midst of a threatening calamity from Assyria, we would do well to infer their spiritual meaning for future Gentiles.

It is also worth recalling that Jesus was a Galilean, coming from Nazareth, therefore, far from the ‘lights of the big city’, as we might say today.

Barnes’s Notes on the Whole Bible:

The people that walked in darkness – The inhabitants of the region of Galilee. They were represented as walking in darkness, because they were far from the capital, and from the temple; they had few religious privileges; they were intermingled with the pagan, and were comparatively rude and uncultivated in their manners and in their language. Allusion to this is several times made in the New Testament; John 1:46: ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?‘ John 7:52: ‹Search and look, for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet;‘ Matthew 26:69; Mark 14:70. The word walked here is synonymous with lived, and denotes that thick darkness brooded over the country, so that they lived, or walked amidst it.

Have seen a great light – Light is not only an emblem of knowledge in the Scriptures, but of joy, rejoicing, and deliverance. It stands opposed to moral darkness, and to times of judgment and calamity. What is the particular reference here, is not agreed by expositors. The immediate connection seems to require us to understand it of deliverance from the calamities that were impending over the nation then. They would be afflicted, but they would be delivered. The tribes of Israel would be carried captive away; and Judah would also be removed. This calamity would particularly affect the ten tribes of Israel – the northern part of the land, the regions of Galilee – “for those tribes would be carried away not to return.” Yet this region also would be favored with a especially striking manifestation of light. I see no reason to doubt that the language of the prophet here is adapted to extend into that future period when the Messiah should come to that dark region, and become both its light and its deliverer. Isaiah may have referred to the immediate deliverance of the nation from impending calamities, but there is a fullness and richness of the language that seems to be applicable only to the Messiah. So it is evidently understood in Matthew 4:13-16.

They that dwell – The same people are referred to here as in the former member of the verse.

In the land of the shadow of death – This is a most beautiful expression, and is special to the Hebrew poets. The word צלמות tsalmâveth is exceedingly poetical. The idea is that of death, as a dark substance or being, casting a long and chilly shade over the land – standing between the land and the light – and thus becoming the image of ignorance, misery, and calamity. It is often used, in the Scriptures, to describe those regions that were lying as it were in the penumbra of this gloomy object, and exposed to all the chills and sorrows of this melancholy darkness. Death, by the Hebrews, was especially represented as extending his long and baleful shadow ever the regions of departed spirits; Job 38:17:

Have the gates of death been opened to thee?

Hast thou seen the gates of the shadow of death?

Before I go – I shall not return –

To the land of darkness And of the shadow of death.

Job 10:21

It is thus an image of chills, and gloom, and night – of anything that resembles the still and mournful regions of the dead. The Chaldee renders these two verses thus: ‘In a former time Zebulun and Naphtali emigrated; and those who remained after them a strong king shall carry into captivity, because they did not remember the power which was shown in the Red Sea, and the miracles which were done in Jordan, and the wars of the people of the cities. The people of the house of Israel who walked in Egypt as in the midst of shades, came out that they might see a great light.‘

John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible:

The people walking in darkness hath seen a great light. He speaks of future events in the past tense, and thus brings them before the immediate view of the people, that in the destruction of the city, in their captivity, and in what appeared to be their utter destruction, they may behold the light of God. It may therefore be summed up in this manner: “Even in darkness, nay, in death itself, there is nevertheless good ground of hope; for the power of God is sufficient to restore life to his people, when they appear to be already dead.” Matthew, who quotes this passage, appears to torture it to a different meaning; for he says that this prediction was fulfilled when Christ preached along the sea-coast. (Matthew 4:16.) But if we take a just view of the comparison, it will be found that Matthew has applied this passage to Christ correctly, and in its true meaning. Yet it does not appear that the view generally given by our commentators is a successful elucidation of the passage; for they merely assert that it belongs to the kingdom of Christ, but do not assign a reason, or show how it accords with this passage. If, therefore, we wish to ascertain the true meaning of this passage, we must bring to our recollection what has been already stated, that the Prophet, when he speaks of bringing back the people from Babylon, does not look to a single age, but includes all the rest, till Christ came and brought the most complete deliverance to his people. The deliverance from Babylon was but a prelude to the restoration of the Church, and was intended to last, not for a few years only, but till Christ should come and bring true salvation, not only to their bodies, but likewise to their souls. When we shall have made a little progress in reading Isaiah, we shall find that this was his ordinary custom.

John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible:

The people that walked in darkness,…. Meaning not the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, in the times of Hezekiah, when Sennacherib besieged them, as Jarchi and Kimchi interpret it; and much less the people of Israel in Egypt, as the Targum paraphrases it; but the inhabitants of Galilee in the times of Christ; see Matthew 4:16, John 1:48 and is a true character of all the people of God before conversion, who are in a state of darkness, under the power of sin, shut up in unbelief; are in gross ignorance of themselves, and their condition; of sin, and the danger they are exposed to by it; of divine and spiritual things; of the grace of God; of the way of peace, life, and salvation by Christ; and of the work of the blessed Spirit; and of the truths of the Gospel; they are in the dark, and can see no objects in a spiritual sense; not to read the word, so as to understand it; or to work that which is good; and they “walk” on in darkness, not knowing where they are, and whither they are going; and yet of these it is said, they

have seen a great light; Christ himself, who conversed among the Galilaeans, preached unto them, and caused the light of his glorious Gospel to shine into many of their hearts; by which their darkness was removed, so that they not only saw Christ, this great light, with their bodily eyes, but with the eyes of their understanding; who may be called the “light”, because he is the author and giver of all light, even of nature, grace, and glory; and a “great” one, because he is the sun, the greatest light, the sun of righteousness, the light of the world, both of Jews and Gentiles; he is the true light, in distinction from all typical ones, and in opposition to all false ones, and who in his person is God over all.

They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death; as Galilee might be called, because it was a poor, miserable, and uncomfortable place, from whence no good came; and this character fitly describes God’s people in a state of nature and unregeneracy, who are dead in Adam, dead in law, and dead in trespasses and sins, dead as to the spiritual use of the powers and faculties of their souls; they have no spiritual life in them, nor any spiritual sense, feeling, or motion; and they “dwell”, continue, and abide in this state, till grace brings them out of it; see John 12:46,

upon them hath the light shined: Christ in human nature, through the ministration of his Gospel, by his spirit, so as to enlighten them who walk in darkness, and to quicken them who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, and to comfort them in their desolate estate; and this light not only shone upon them in the external ministration of the word, as it did “upon” the inhabitants in general, but it shone “into” the hearts of many of them in particular, so that in this light they saw light.