Rector’s Ramblings: Sapientiatide and the Great “O” antiphons

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Some of the following may be familiar to you, either because you are already aware of these antiphons and their history and significance, or because I am pretty sure I wrote about them last year. But we have new people since then, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of these things, as the wheel of the Christian year turns!

In any case:

As Christmas approaches, Western Christian tradition has hallowed each evening in the last week (approximately) of Advent with the singing of particular antiphons at the canticle Magnificat, the first canticle of Evening Prayer. The texts of these antiphons are the basis for John Mason Neal’s beloved Advent carol, “O come, O come, Emmanuel” – although in slightly modified form, and different order.

Antiphons are short passages drawn from Scripture, or sometimes non-scriptural devotional materials, which provide season­al or other appropriate emphasis to the theme being celebrated on that particular day. They typically form brack­ets to psalms or canticles, being said or sung before and following the psalm or canticle in question.

Each of these antiphons (with one optional exception, discussed below) is a name or attribute of Christ as recorded in the Messianic prophecies of Holy Scripture: “Root of Jesse,” “Key of David,” etc., and each begins with the vocative “O,” giving them the name of the “O” (or “Great O”) Antiphons.”

Sapientiatide has tradition­ally been considered, much like Passiontide during Lent, as a time of enhanced devotion and preparation – in this case for the Coming of the King: both the commemoration of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Christ’s Second Coming in power and great glory at the end of time.

According to the use of Old Sarum – e.g., that of Salisbury in England, which was the root of much of the Common Prayer tradition in Anglicanism ­– Sapientiatide begins on the 16th of December with O Sapientia, “O Wisdom,” and the Book of Common Prayer 1662 marks the date as such in its calendar, even though there is no evidence that these antiphons were actually in use in the 17th century Church of England.

The official use of the Roman Catholic Church is to start a day later, singing O Sapientia on 17 December; and that is the more common usage among Western Christians, including Old Catholics, some Lutherans, and many Anglicans. For that reason, it is sometimes referred to as the general “Western use.”

These antiphons may be used in the traditional way – with the Magnificat at Vespers – or simply as foci for meditation during this season. The dates given are for the general Western use; those in parentheses are for the Sarum Use.

December 17th (16th):  O Sapientia

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end unto the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

December 18th (17th):  O Adonai

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, who appearedst in the Bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gavest him the Law at Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

December 19th (18th):  O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not. 

December 20th (19th):  O Clavis David

O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, that openest and no man shutteth, and shuttest and no man openeth: Come and bring the prisoners out of the prison-house, them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 21st (20th):  O Oriens

O Dayspring, Brightness of Light Everlasting, and Sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 22nd (21st):  O Rex Gentium

O King of the Nations, and their Desire; the Cornerstone who makest both one: Come and save mankind, whom thou formedst from clay.

December 23rd (22nd):  O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God. 

December 23rd (Sarum Use Alternative): O Virgo virginum

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any seen like thee, no shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusa­lem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

One commentator has noted that although devotion to the Blessed Virgin just before Christmas is itself highly commendable, the use of the 8th antiphon (“O Virgo virginum”) does depart from the unity of the other “O” antiphons, all the rest of which are specifically Christological in nature. It also has a somewhat different structure than the preceding antiphons.

Since the use of these antiphons is not prescribed in either the Prayer Book or the canons, it seems reasonable to conclude that either usage is acceptable.

Christmas Eve:

Most folks will probably be involved with family festivities, and/or be attending one of the services – we have two this year, one at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and one at 11 o’clock p.m. – on Christmas Eve.

But for those who may be required by circumstance to celebrate at home, or who have time to say First Vespers of Christmas at home before coming to church, here is the traditional antiphon (no longer a “Great O”!) for the Magnificat, First Vespers of the Nativity:

Or ever the sun be risen, ye shall see the King of Kings, who proceedeth from the Father, and cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber.

Another traditional Christmas antiphon goes,

For while all things were in quiet silence, and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty Word, O Lord, leapt down from heaven out of thy royal throne.

How to use the Antiphons

For those who may not be familiar with the traditional use of antiphons in liturgy, here is the Magnificat (the Song of Mary, the first canticle at Evening Prayer in the BCP 1928) with the first Advent Antiphon, O Sapientia

Antiphon: O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end unto the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

✠ My soul doth magnify the Lord, * and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded * the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth * all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me; * and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him * throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; * he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, * and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; * and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel; * as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Antiphon: O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end unto the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

I hope and pray that this was interesting and helpful, and I hope and pray for you a peaceful and blessed conclusion to this holy tide of Advent!

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Fr. Tom Harbold

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