So, what are the Great “O” Antiphons?
Episcopalians are great with “church-speak,” are we not?
For the second time, the parish choirs are singing our annual Advent choral service this Sunday evening (December 9), which follows the order of a liturgy centered around the Great “O” Antiphons.
In traditional Western Christian liturgy, an antiphon is a short sentence of scripture that is or recited before or after a canticle, which is a hymn or chant with a biblical text. In the Anglican tradition, we sing canticles frequently and in various forms or occasions.
The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are the central canticles for Evensong. The Gloria in excelsis is the central canticle we sing most often for the Holy Eucharist. Occasionally, a canticle will replace the Psalm in the lectionary readings, as is the case for this Sunday morning. The Benedictus Dominus Deus (The Song of Zechariah) replaces the Psalm on Advent II in this particular liturgical year’s readings.
Sometimes antiphons are used as Psalm refrains, which repeat periodically throughout the sung Psalm. Antiphons and refrains have become interchangeable in modern usage, but in the strictest sense, they are different. Most often we sing Psalms using the antiphon/refrain responsorily in our Sunday morning and evening services.
The Great “O” Antiphons, were historically used as antiphons for the singing of the Magnificat canticle at Vespers (Anglican Evening Prayer) on the weekdays leading up to the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas Day). These verses of what we know as the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” are clearly lined out as Hymn 56 in The Hymnal 1982.
Throughout the years, people have asked me why the December dates appear before the seven stanzas of Hymn 56. Now we know!
Each of these hymn stanzas refers to an antiphon based upon a name given to Christ in the Old Testament and is a petition for the scriptural fulfillment of the prophets. The antiphons are namely: O Wisdom, O Lord of might, O Branch of Jesse’s tree, O Key of David, O Dayspring from on high, O Desire of nations, and O come, Emmanuel.
The origin of these “O” Antiphons is not known, but they have been found in manuscripts from the ninth century and are historically attributed to St. Gregory the Great. In addition to being used as the Magnificat antiphons, they are also used as the antiphons with the Alleluia verse for Roman Catholic Mass on these days as well.
The writings of Boethius (480-524), a Roman senator and philosopher, make a slight reference to the “O” Antiphons, which might suggest that they were used as early as the sixth century. By the eighth century, they are in regular use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, thus dating them to the very early Church.
When printed in reverse order and using the initial capital letter that begins each word, the “O” Antiphons spell out the Latin phrase ero cras (“I will be tomorrow”): Emmanuel, Rex (King), Oriens (East), Clavis (Key), Radix (Root), Adonai (Lord), and Sapientia (Wisdom). There is little theological scholarship to document this hidden meaning, but manuscripts with illuminated initial capitals for each “O” Antiphon do exist.
In addition to two anthems in the service, our Choristers will sing the Great “O” Antiphons throughout the liturgy this Sunday evening. They are stepping up to the Advent liturgical plate!
The Parish and Motet choirs will round out the liturgy with a few other choral offerings, including the traditional Introit “I look from afar,” a setting of the Philippians text “Rejoice in the Lord alway,” a wonderfully introspective rendition of the traditional carol “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” and the old English carol “Adam lay ybounden.”
Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond;
four thousand winter, thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took.
As clerkes finden, written in their book.
Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been.
Ne had never our ladie, abeen heav’ne queen.
Blesséd be the time that apple taken was,
therefore we moun singen. Deo gracias!