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An antiphon is a short chant that is usually used as part of a Christian ritual. These chants are sung as refrains, or repeated sections of verse. 

The antiphon form was used in the Psalms (as explained in more detail below). Anitphions are used throughout a variety of Christian rituals. These include: 

  • Communion – the breaking of the bread, or “host,” during mass. The “sign of peace” is also exchanged. Everyone recites the Lord’s Prayer. 
  • The Introit  – the entrance of the priest at the beginning of Mass. It usually includes an antiphons, and Gloria Patri, sung/spoken at the beginning. 
  • The Offertory – part of the church service during which the bread and wine are placed on the altar. Often, the collection of alms occurs during this time as well. 

Antiphon pronunciation: ahn-teh-fahn

Antiphon definition and examples

Definition of Antiphon

An antiphon is a short chant/song that’s performed at a Christian church service. The antiphon form is part of the Psalms and was favored by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and an important ecclesiastical figure of the 4th century. He is credited with promoting the antiphonal chant. During these chants, one side of the chorus who respond to the other, alternating parts. 

There are specific anitphons that are used for certain celebrations and feasts. 

What is an Antiphony? 

The term antiphony is used to describe a type of call and response chant or style of singing. It can be used to describe religious songs as well as nonreligious songs. For example, sea shanties are often antiphonies. The word is also used to describe a type of choir book that includes antiphons. 

What is the Book of Psalms? 

The Book of Psalms is the first book of Ketuvim and a book of the Christian Old Testament. It is a collection of psalms, a term that comes from the Greek word meaning “instrumental music.” There are 150 psalms from the Jewish and Western Christian tradition, and further in the tradition of the Eastern Christian Churches. They were written by a variety of authors dating between the 9th and 5th centuries BC. 

There are different types of pslams, five in total, as defined by Hermann Gunkel. They are: 

  • Hymns: songs of praise for what God has done. They are divided into two catgories, Zion Psalms and “enthronement psalms.” 
  • Communal laments: the group, such as a nation, laments a disaster. These include an address to God, a description of what’s going on, a curse of the person or group responsible, a plea for help, faith in God’s response, anticipation of a response, and then a song of thanks. 
  • Royal laments: deal with battles, a king’s coronation, and more. 
  • Individual laments: an individual laments over the fate of someone else. It is the most common type. Includes an innovation of God and a plea for help. 
  • Individual thanksgiving psalms: the singer thanks God for help with a personal problem. 

Some other minor types of psalms include wisdom, pilgrimage, entrance and prophetic, and more.

Origin of Antiphons 

Antiphons originated in the 5th century but had its roots in the Synagogue. The early traditions of chanting were borrowed from Jewish tradition. One story suggests that antiphony was introduced by Aignatius of Antioch who was inspired by a vision of two angels. 

It took two centuries after the practice was commonly used in the Byzantine and Armenian Rites to make its way into the Latin Church. Ancient changes, credited to St. Ambrose and Gregory the Great are still used to this day, as noted in The Oxford History of Christian Worship. 

Examples of Antiphons

  • Give peace, O Lord, to those who wait for you, that your prophets be found true.  Hear the prayers of your servant, and of your people Israel.
  • How precious is your mercy, O God!  The children of men seek shelter in the shadow of your wings.
  • The Lord is my shepherd, nothing shall I want. 
  • When he calls to me, I will answer. 
  • My heart has prompted me to seek your face, O Lord. 
  • My eyes are ever fixed on the Lord.
  • You will find contentment at her consoling breasts. 
  • Give me justice, O God, and defend my cause.
  • The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 
  • And he led them in a cloud by day and all the night by a fiery light.
  • My mouth is filled with your praise all the day with your lauding.

Why Are Antiphons Important? 

Antiphons are a traditional part of the Christian church service that dates back many centuries. They provide a structure to the ceremony and can be adjusted in regard to the Mass, time of year, and more. 


What is an antiphon in the Catholic Mass?

It is a short line that is repeated by alternating choices. This is known as antiphonal singing. The choirs since the psalm text. 

What is a communion antiphon?

A chant that is sung during communion by the choir, a single singer, or the whole congregation. 

What is an entrance antiphon?

An entrance antiphon is sung during the introit, or the time during which the priest walks into the service. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Hymn stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Homily: a speech delivered by a religious person, usually a priest, in front of a group of people. 
  • Adage: a short, familiar and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.
  • Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • Apologue: a short story, sometimes a fable, that shares a moral lesson. For example, kindness is more important than power, or love triumphs over hate.

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