Friday, December 07, 2018

Multiple "O"s

It is the time of year when pastors sometimes teach about the so-called "O-antiphons" which form the basis of the splendid Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

(It is amusing to reflect upon how much attention these little scraps of medieval poetry get even in churches where the Magnificat itself is rarely sung, much less its proper antiphons. But that is a discussion for another day.)

Father A. has been leading one of these little cottage classes recently, and was delighted, in his antiquarian way, to discover that there are a great many more O-antiphons than he had realized.  Most of us are familiar with the seven used in the Roman Breviary during the days before Christmas Eve and imitated, imperfectly, in the lyrics of the hymn:
  1. O Sapientia (Wisdom)
  2. O Adonai (Adonai, or Lord)
  3. O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
  4. O Clavis (Key of David)
  5. O Oriens (East, or Dawn)
  6. O Rex (King)
  7. O Emmanuel          
Some of us are also aware that Anglicans add another antiphon:
8. O Virgo VirginumO Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For never was there one like you, nor ever will there be.O Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you look wondering at me? What you behold is a divine mystery 
Now, this little gem was certainly written after the originals, probably during the flowering of Marian devotion during the 12th century. When sung last, it has the neat effect of changing the acrostic from ERO CRAS (I will come tomorrow) to VERO CRAS (truly tomorrow).

Fewer of us are aware however, that during the 12th and 13th centuries, and beyond, several more antiphons constructed on the same pattern were in use at many monasteries and some parish churches all over Western Europe. The Twelve "Great Antiphons" include those we have just noted as well as the following:

9. O Gabriel, Nuntius Coelorum
O Gabriel, messenger of the heavens,
who has entered to me through the closed doors, and announced the word:
“You shall conceive and bear, and he shall be called Emmanuel.”
10. O Rex Pacifice
O King of Peace, born before the world,
come by the Golden Gate, visit your redeemed ones,
 and call them back to the place from which they fell by sin.
11. O Mundi Domina
O Lady of the world, sprung of a royal race,
now Christ has come forth from your womb
as a bridegroom from his chamber:
Here lies he in the crib, who also rules the stars. 
12. O Hierusalem
O Jerusalem, city of God most high:
lift up your eyes around you, and see your Lord,
who comes now to loose you from chains.
These are pretty neat, although -- like Virgo Virginum -- they are obviously quite different from the seven familiar Os. They are not directed only to Jesus, but to Gabriel, Mary and Jerusalem. This displays a rather different piety. And, without extensive research, it also seems to us that they are a bit less dense with Biblical allusions than their predecessors.  Still, they are lovely in their own way.

Oh, and here's a lovely trivium:  in the Friuli, O mundi Domina was intoned on Christmas Eve by the priest celebrant, after he sang the Gospel and just before the Te Deum. Neat, huh?

But wait, as the K-Tel advertisements used to say, there's more! It seems that, once this style of antiphon became popular, people couldn't get enough of it. Local variations began to pop up everywhere -- O Thomas Didyme for the feast if that saint replaced O Gabriel after the 13th century, at leas in some places. In Paris, we are told they sang O sancte sanctorum and O pastor Israel, of which we cannot even find texts on the mighty Internet.

And in some French churches, specifically those that followed the custom established by Lanfranc of Canterbury, O mundi Domina was replaced by this long and curious marvel:
O beata infantia 
O blessed Infancy,
By which our race
Was restored to life; 
 O sweet and loveable wailing,
by which we have escaped
eternal sobbing 
 O happy swaddling bands
By which we have wiped off
The soil of sin 
 O splendid manger,
In which not only lay
The hay of animals,
But was also found the supper of angels.

Cool, huh?  It's a little late now, but maybe some of our readers can integrate these into their planning for next year's Advent observances.
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Anonymous said...

I'd recommend a set of sonnets reflecting on the seven O antiphons, found in "Sounding the Seasons" by a strange Anglican priest named Malcolm Guite.

Father Anonymous said...

Thanks! I'd never heard of Guite, but he seems fascinating (based upon a quick google). I'll try to lay hands on "Sounding."