Recently I have been in contact with Julia Bolton Holloway about the O Antiphons and sent her a chapter conference I gave to the monastic community on their history. She suggested that it may be of interest to the rest of the discussion list and so I am posting it. It is not footnoted, however. If anyone should want the sources, I'll try to reconstruct the sources upon which my conference is based.
Thomas Sullivan, OSB
THE GREAT ANTIPHONS
1. O Wisdom (Eccl 24: 5),
2. you came forth from the mouth of the Most High (Sir 24: 30), and reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly (Wis 8: 1).
3. Come, and teach us the way of prudence (Isa 40: 14).
1. O Adonai (Exod 6: 13)
2. and Ruler of the house of Israel (Matt 2: 6), you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush (Exod 3: 2), and on Mount Sinai gave him your Law (Exod 20).
3. Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us (Jer 32: 21).
O Radix Jesse
1. O Root of Jesse,
2. you stand for the ensign of all mankind (Isa 11: 10); before you kings shall keep silence and to you all nations shall have recourse (Isa 52: 15).
3. Come, save us, and do not delay (Hab 2: 3).
O Clavis David
1. O Key of David (Apoc 3: 7)
2. Scepter of the house of Israel, you open and no man closes; you close and no man opens (Isa 22: 22).
3. Come, and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death (Ps 107: 10).
1. O Rising Dawn (Zac 6: 12),
2. Radiance of the Light eternal (Hab 3: 4) and Sun of Justice (Mal 3: 20);
3. come, enlighten those who sit in darkness & the shadow of death (Ps 107: 10; Lk 1: 78).
O Rex Gentium
1. O King of the Gentiles (Hag 2: 8),
2. Desired of all, you are the cornerstone that binds two into one (Eph 2: 20).
3. Come, and save poor man whom you fashion out of clay (Gen 2: 7).
1. O Emmanuel (Isa 7: 14; 8: 8),
2. our King and Lawgiver (Gen 49:10; cf Ezek 21: 32), the Expected of the nations and their Savior (Isa 33: 22):
3. come, and save us, O Lord our God.
THE GREAT ANTIPHONS
1. Two weeks from tonight we will begin the celebration of the last eight days of Advent which form a little liturgical season all by themselves. As the church prepares to celebrate the birthday of Christ, the liturgy gets more intense, freighted with all the hopes of an expectant church. At the eucharist, the Gospels relate the events leading up to the first Christmas. And at Vespers, we have a special series of antiphons which accentuates the church's call to Christ to come. Each night gives him a new name: "O Wisdom," "O Sacred Lord," "O Flower of Jesse's Stem," "O Key of David," "O Radiant Dawn," "O King of All the Nations," and the greatest of them all, "O Emmanuel," a name which means "God is with us."
2. For obvious reasons, we call that group of refrains the "O antiphons," or the "Great Os" or the "Great antiphons." They are a hallmark of the Advent season and a collection of music and texts the church has treasured for many generations. Advent's most popular hymn, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," is the result of stringing these texts together. The Mass now includes a version of the O antiphons for the alleluia verses for December 17 through December 24.
3. This evening I would like to discuss briefly three aspects of the great Os: first, their textual structure and sources, secondly, their number and origin, and finally, customs surrounding the singing of the great antiphons.
TEXTUAL STRUCTURE AND SOURCES
4. The O antiphons are all constructed on a plan similar to that of the classical collect: first, an invocation to the Messiah with a title inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures and preceded by the interjection "O" (for example, "O Emmanuel"); then an amplification stating an attribute of the Messiah and developing the invocation ("our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Savior"); finally, an appeal beginning always with the imperative "Veni" or "Come" and referring either to the Messianic title or the amplification ("come and save us, O Lord our God").
5. The sources of the O antiphons are either of scriptural origin or of ecclesiastical composition, the latter a free manner of juxtaposing scriptural texts from different sources. The texts of the antiphons are virtually a mosaic of borrowings from the Prophets and from the Wisdom literature, as well as from the Christian Scriptures which were in turn using material from the Hebrew Scriptures.
6. These terms from the Hebrew Scriptures were very early applied to Christ. Four of them were already employed in fourth century, in Pope St. Damasus' Song of the Names of the Savior. The term Clavis David or Key of David is applied to Christ by St. Ambrose and was repeated in the Pontificale Romanum for the consecration of a king. Non-scriptural words are few and are used to link the terms borrowed from Scripture. The two pleas, "Come and save us" from "O Emmanuel" and "Come to free us" from "O Radix" do not seem to be of Scriptural origin. The "come to free us" text appears to be taken from a short responsory of the Advent liturgy, a text dating as early as the sixth century.
NUMBER AND ORIGIN
7. In inverse order the initials of each invocation constitute an acrostic: ERO CRAS. This is interpreted as the response of Christ to the faithful who have called upon him during the week: "Tomorrow I shall be there." From this acrostic we can draw two conclusions: first, the primitive order of the antiphons is that preserved today in the Roman breviary and the monastic offices, rather than that indicated by Amalarius of Metz in the 9th century or that found in the Ambrosian liturgy or in some Gregorian manuscripts. Secondly, the original number of the antiphons was only seven.
8. Some churches had eight antiphons, some nine, and some even twelve. These other antiphons modeled on the first seven are not by the same author and do not enter into the framework of the acrostic; above all they are not addressed to the Messiah. Other antiphons interpolated and added were: O Thomas Didyme, composed for the feast of the Apostle Thomas which always falls during the period when the O antiphons are sung, and O Virgo virginum, in honor of the Blessed Virgin, sung on the vigil of Christmas.
10. The ninth-century Amalarius of Metz was the first to discuss the O antiphons. He attributed their composition to some anonymous cantor; scholars suggest that this cantor probably lived in the eighth century, perhaps even in the seventh.
CUSTOMS SURROUNDING THE SINGING OF THE GREAT Os
11. In the medieval church, those occasions when anything unusual was said or done in choir frequently turned into something like festivals. It is not surprising then that partly through the influence of the antiphons themselves and partly no doubt through a sense of bustle at the approach of Christmas, this anticipatory week seems almost to have been kept as a festal week, a sort of inverted octave.
12. In parts of Germany, for example, it was the custom to illuminate the antiphon for the day very beautifully on a separate piece of parchment and to expose it to view upon the great lectern in the center of the choir, as we do with the Christmas book here at Conception. In most churches, provision was made for the special ringing of bells at Vespers on these days: they were rung as if on a feastday or the heaviest bell was used. We at Conception ring a bell all through the Magnificat. Sometimes the antiphon was doubled, that is, sung after each verse or couplet.
12. But the most interesting of all observances for the great antiphons were the pomp and circumstance which almost everywhere and especially in the monasteries, were attached to the entoning of them. The entoning of antiphons on feast days was always reserved to the abbot or other dignitaries of the chapter and this was particularly true of the O antiphons. The right of entoning one of the O antiphons was jealously limited by immemorial custom to certain higher officers in the community and each of these great functionaries had his own appropriate antiphon. In most monasteries, the antiphon O Sapientia (O Wisdom) was reserved to the abbot and O Adonai to the prior. Some antiphons were entoned by the obedientiary or functionary most closely associated with the theme of the antiphon: O Radix Jesse was reserved to the gardener, O Clavis David to the cellarer whose duty it was to keep things under lock and key, and O Rex Gentium to the infirmarian, since the antiphon contained the clause, "Come and save (or heal) man whom you have formed out of clay." At Conception, the dean of studies or the librarian sometimes presented the Christmas book to the abbot for entoning "O Sapientia" and the groundskeeper for the antiphon "O Radix Jesse."
13. Moreover from this custom of making much of the privilege of entoning the great antiphons a curious development resulted. It seems to have been regarded as becoming that the high functionary so favored should mark his sense of the honor done him by standing for a treat for the community for "making or keeping his O" (faciendo suum O). The account rolls (the equivalent of our print-outs) of the various departments record the expenses for this haustus or treat, frequently beer, fish, spices, and almonds. It is surprising that this party-like spirit should prevail over the fasting days of Advent; probably the whole system may be best explained as a lingering survival of that spirit of joy and expectation which was a prominent though not a unique feature in the Advent liturgy of the early centuries.
14. In sum then, we begin the celebration of the great Os in two weeks, a celebration of the letter O--the letter of the alphabet that most reminds us of breakfast cereal, inner tubes, doughnuts, hula hoops, no hitters, and Advent. The letter O simply tells us that we're talking to someone. It's like saying "Hey, you," only more politely. But O reminds us of much more. It makes us think of something having no beginning or end. It resembles the shape of our mouth and the sound we make when we face a mystery we cannot fully comprehend.
Thomas Sullivan, OSB
3 December 1996