Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Reading the O Antiphons Forward

It is a well-known fact that the first letters of the seven titles with which the O antiphons begin, when read in reverse order, form an anagram, ERO CRAS, Latin for “tomorrow I shall be.” The order in which they are sung, however, is not purely casual, nor arranged solely for the sake of the anagram; it also forms a catechesis on the history of salvation in Christ. They also contain certain allusions to the liturgical texts of Christmas Day, which are made with great subtlety, in a manner very typical of Advent.

O Sapientia” refers to the eternal pre-existence of the Word, and His role in creation, an idea of which the Church Fathers often speak. St Paul calls Christ “the wisdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 1, 24; the antiphon says that Wisdom “came forth from the mouth of the Most High”, i.e. it is spoken, like the Word. St Hilary of Poitier writes in his book On the Trinity, 3, 21, commenting on the figure of Wisdom who speaks in Proverbs 8, “There is with God Wisdom, begotten before the worlds; and not only present with Him, but setting in order, for it was with Him, setting them in order. Mark this work of setting in order, or arranging. The Father, by His commands, is the Cause; the Son, by His execution of the things commanded, sets in order.

An icon of Holy Wisdom, ca. 1670; the figure of Wisdom is painted red in accordance with a well-known, although now archaic, feature of the eastern Slavic languages, that the word “ krasni” means both “red” and “beautiful.”
The words of this antiphon “fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia – mightily and sweetly ordering all things” are taken from Wisdom 8, 1, the conclusion of a passage (7, 21 – 8, 2) in which the author lists the attributes of Wisdom: “the worker of all things … holy, one, … having all power, overseeing all things, and containing all spirits … more active than all active things: and reacheth everywhere by reason of her purity. … a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God … the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness.” Catholic Biblical commentaries rightly note that these words are similar to the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which describes the Son of God as the “brightness of His glory, and the figure of His substance, and upholding all things by the word of His power.” This latter passage (Hebrews 1, 1-12) is the Epistle of the third Mass of Christmas, the one which speaks particularly of the eternal birth of the Son from the Father; the Gospel with which is it paired, the Prologue of St John, tells us of the Word whose Incarnation is revealed in the Nativity.

O Adonai” speaks of Christ as the one who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Mount Sinai; “Adonai”, Hebrew for “My Lord”, is the word which Jews, when reading the Bible, say in place of the Divine Name YHWH that was revealed to Moses in Exodus 3. The prayer to “come to redeem us with arm extended” refers to God’s own words when speaking to Moses in Exodus 6, 6, “I am the Lord who will bring you out from the work-prison of the Egyptians, and will deliver you from bondage: and redeem you with a high arm, and great judgments,” as well as the canticle which Moses sings after the crossing of the Red Sea, “Let fear and dread fall upon them, (i.e. upon the Egyptians) in the greatness of thy arm.” (Exod. 15, 16)

Moses and the Burning Bush, by Nicholas Froment, 1476, in the Cathedrale Saint Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence. The artist is here inspired by one of the Lauds antiphons of the feast of the Circumcision: “The bush which Moses saw unburnt, we acknowledge as Thy praiseworthy virginity; Mother of God, intercede for us.” This also refers to the Law of Moses, in obedience to which Christ was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth.
O Radix Jesse” quotes two chapters of the prophet Isaiah (11 and 52) which are cited by St Paul in Romans 15, although the citations are not exactly the same. (After the Psalms, Isaiah is the Old Testament book most often quoted in the New.) This antiphon and its predecessor demonstrate that in the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets bear witness to the coming of Christ, just as Moses and Elijah appeared to either side of Him at the Transfiguration, the former as the representative of the Law, the latter of the Prophets. The Lord Himself taught this to His disciples: “These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was yet with you, that all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me.” (Luke 24, 44) St Leo the Great, in a homily on the Transfiguration (51, 4; PL 54, 331B), says that in the preaching of the Word, “the pages of the two covenants agree with each other; and the splendor of the present glory shows manifestly and clearly Him whom the signs that went before Him had promised under the veil of mysteries.”

The O antiphons do not explicitly mention the Incarnation, to which the whole season of Advent is dedicated; nor do they anticipate the birth of Christ, which is celebrated at Christmas. Likewise, it would also be out of keeping with the joyful nature of the season to work in any explicit reference to Christ’s passion and death; instead, these are spoken of obliquely in the fourth and fifth antiphons.

O Clavis David – o key of David” and the term that follows, “scepter of the house of Israel” refer to the Angel Gabriel’s words to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, that Her Son would be given the seat of David, and rule in the house of Jacob, whose other name is Israel. (Genesis 32, 28) Where the antiphon prays that Christ may come “to lead out the prisoner from the house of the prison, and him that sitteth in the darkness and the shadow of death”, the prisoner is Adam, the forefather of the human race, and by inference, all the just who died before the death and resurrection of Christ had opened the gates of heaven, and thus remained “in darkness and the shadow of death.” Note in the image below how Christ at the Harrowing of Hell is shown holding the Cross, which is suggestive of a key in its form. Behind, the locks and bars of the Limbo of the Fathers are broken. Of course, the Harrowing of Hell is necessarily preceding by the passion and death of Christ, which in turn are necessarily preceded by the Incarnation. This text also looks forward to the reading of Isaiah 9, 1-6 at Christmas Matins: “The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen.”

O Oriens” is about the Resurrection, since “Oriens” means “the rising one.” This antiphon describes Christ as “the splendor of eternal light, the sun of justice”, which is to say, the Light and Sun that shall see no setting. Here the Church professes its hope in the future resurrection, by speaking of the “eternal light” on December 21, the day of the winter solstice and the shortest hours of daylight. It is surely not a coincidence that this is also the shortest of the O antiphons. The object of the prayer at the antiphon’s end is repeated from yesterday, but now in the plural: “come and shine upon those who sit in the darkness, and the shadow of death.” This indicates that the fruits of Christ’s passion and resurrection are to be shared with the whole of the human race in each of its members.

O Rex gentium”, therefore, refers to the Ascension, Pentecost, and the establishment of the Church. On the feast of the Ascension, the first words of the Magnificat antiphon at Second Vespers are “O Rex gloriae”, sung in the same mode and with the same notes as the beginning of the O antiphons. These are the only two antiphons of the ancient corpus in general use throughout the Roman Rite that begin with the words “O Rex”. The word “gloriae – of glory” is substituted by “gentium – of the nations” to symbolize the nations that come into the Church, beginning with the Apostles’ preaching to nations of diverse languages at Pentecost.

Christ is then called “desideratus earum – the one desired by (the nations)”, words taken from the prophecy of Haggai 2, 8, in which God says that He will fill His house, i.e. the Church, with glory when He stirs up all nations. He is also called “lapis angularis – the corner stone”, in reference to the corner stone rejected by the builders in Psalm 117, and also to the Lauds hymn for the Dedication of a Church, “Angularis fundamentum – Christ is sent as the corner stone and foundation.”

On the morning of December 23rd, the Church sings the canticle Benedictus with the antiphon “Behold, all things are completed which were said through the Angel about the Virgin Mary.” This being so, the last O antiphon, “O Emmanuel”, addresses Christ with the name meaning “God is with us”, the name of the child whose coming was prophesied by Isaiah when he foretold that “a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son.” This also looks forward to the reading of Isaiah 9 at Christmas Matins, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.”

There follow the titles “our King and lawgiver, the expectation of the nations, and the Savior thereof.” The words “God with us, our King and Lawgiver” refer to Christ’s abiding presence in the Church and in the world, as He said to His disciples on meeting them after the Resurrection: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matt. 28, 20) In the previous antiphon, the word “desideratus – the desired (of the nations)” is a past participle, indicating that the longing of the nations for the first coming of Christ has been fulfilled. Here He is “the expectation of the nations”, the Latin word “expectatio” indicating an ongoing action, as we await the Second Coming of Christ, who “shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end.” This returns us to a theme which has been present from the very beginning of Advent, which recalls both the First Coming of Christ in the fullness of time, and His Second Coming at the end of the world.

Christ the Savior, by El Greco, 1610-14

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: