Monday, December 18, 2023

A Medieval Liturgical Commentary on the O Antiphons (Part 1)

We are now more than two-thirds of the way through Advent, and yesterday, the Church begin to sing the famous O antiphons at Vespers. These are one of the most loved features of the Church’s liturgy, and for good reason; the texts are especially rich in references to the Old Testament prophecies of the Divine Redeemer and His coming for the salvation of the human race, and the Gregorian chant with which they are sung is extremely beautiful. The Roman Rite has seven of these, and it of course well known that the first letters of the seven titles (O Sapientia, O Adonai etc.) form an acrostic when read backwards, ERO CRAS, Latin for “Tomorrow I will be.”; this is completed on the last day before the Christmas season formally begins on the evening of the 24th. I have previously explained how they are also arranged to be read forward as a catechism on the history of salvation.

The first six O antiphons in the Antiphonary of Hartker, written at the monastery of St Gallen in Switzerland at the end of the 10th century. (Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 390, p. 40 – Antiphonarium officii,
When semidoubling antiphons was the norm in the Use of Rome, the O’s were always doubled, and the choir did not sit after they were intoned, as one usually does for the Magnificat antiphon. Various other particular customs were observed in other places. In the very ancient abbey of Fleury, for example, the intonation of each antiphon was assigned to a particular member of the monastic community: O Wisdom to the abbot, O Lord to the prior, O Root of Jesse to the gardener, O Key of David to the cellarer, (who held the key to all of the storehouses), etc. (Martene, De antiquis Ecclesiae ritibus IV.3.3)

The medieval use of Augsburg in Germany contains a particularly interesting enrichment of the liturgy on these days. Each O is accompanied by a special chapter, and a special concluding oration, both of which refer back to it; these form a kind of scriptural and euchological commentary on the much older antiphons. Like many medieval uses, that of Augsburg also added other antiphons to the series, which I will note in another post later this week; here are the chapters and prayers which go with the seven oldest antiphons, those found in the Roman Breviary. At Augsburg, the Os began on December 13th, and so I have noted them here.
December 13 (17 in the Roman Breviary)
Ego Sapientia ex ore Altissimi
prodivi, primogenita ante om-
nem creaturam. Transite ad
me, omnes qui concupiscitis
me, et a generationibus meis
The Chapter
I Wisdom came out of the
mouth of the Most High, the
firstborn before all creatures.
Come over to me, all ye that
desire me, and be filled with
my fruits. (Sirach 24, 5 & 26)
Aña O Sapientia, * quae ex
ore Altissimi prodiisti: attin-
gens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens
omnia: veni ad docendum
nos viam prudentiae.
Aña O Wisdom, * that comest
out of the mouth of the Most
High, that reachest from end
to end, mightily and sweetly
ordering all things: come and
teach us the way of prudence.
Festinantes, omnipotens Deus,
in occursum Filii tui, Domini
nostri, nulli impediant actus
tereni, sed caelestis sapientiae
eruditio faciat nos ejus esse
consortes. Qui tecum.
The Prayer
Almighty God, let no earthly
actions hinder them that ha-
ten to meet Thy Son, our
Lord, but let the teaching of
heavenly wisdom make us
His fellow heirs, Who with
December 14
Ecce Deus noster: ecce Domi-
nus Deus in fortitudine veniet,
et brachium ejus dominabitur:
ecce merces ejus cum eo, et
opus illius coram illo.
The Chapter
Behold our God: behold the Lord
God shall come with strength, and
his arm shall rule: Behold his re-
ward is with him, and his work is
before him. (Isaiah 40, 9-10)
Aña O Adonai, * et Dux domus
Israël, qui Moysi in igne flam-
mae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Si-
na legem dedisti: veni ad redi-
mendum nos in brachio exten-
Aña O Adonai, * and leader of
the house of Israel, who didst ap-
pear to Moses in the fire of the
burning bush, and gavest him
the Law on Sinai; come thou to
redeem us with arm outstretched. 
Deus, qui hominem de lapsu in
mortem Unigeniti tui adventu
redimisti: praesta, quaesumus;
ut qui ejus gloriosam fatentur
Incarnationem, ipsius Redemp-
toris consortia mereantur:
Qui tecum.
The Prayer
God, who didst redeem man from
the fall unto death by the coming
of Thy Only begotten Son; grant,
we beseech Thee, that they who
confess His glorious Incarnation
may merit the fellowship of that
very Redeemer; who liveth and
reigneth with Thee...
December 15

Ecce radix Jesse ascendet in
salutem populorum: ipsum
gentes deprecabuntur: et erit
nomen ejus gloriosum.
The Chapter
Behold the root of Jesse shall
arise for the salvation of the
peoples; him the Gentiles shall
beseech, and his name shall be
glorious. (Isaiah 11, 10)
Aña O Radix Jesse, * qui stas
in signum populorum, super
quem continebunt reges os
suum, quem gentes depreca-
buntur: veni ad liberandum
nos, jam noli tardare.
Aña O root of Jesse, * that stand-
est as an ensign of the peoples,
at whom the kings shall shut their
mouths, whom the Gentiles shall
beseech: come thou to deliver us,
delay thou not. 
Festina, ne tardaveris, Domi-
ne, Deus noster: et a diaboli-
co furore nos potenter libera-
re dignare: Qui cum.
The Prayer
Hasten, delay Thou not, o Lord,
our God; and deign Thou
mightily to deliver us from the
wrath of the devil. Who with
the Father...
The Prophet Isaiah, by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740). “And one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a live coal, which he had taken with the tongs off the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold this hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquities shall be taken away, and thy sin shall be cleansed.” (Isaiah 6, 6-7 – Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
December 16
Dedi te in foedus populi, in
lucem gentium, ut aperires
oculos caecorum, et educe-
res de conclusione vinctos,
de domo carceris sedentes
in tenebris.
The Chapter
I have given thee for a covenant
of the people, for a light of the
Gentiles: that thou may open the
eyes of the blind, and bring forth
the prisoners out of prison, and
them that sit in darkness out of
the prison house. (Isa. 42, 6-7)
Aña O clavis David, * et
sceptrum domus Israël; qui
aperis, et nemo claudit; clau-
dis, et nemo aperit: veni, et
educ vinctum de domo car-
ceris, sedentem in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
Aña O key of David, * and
sceptre of the house of Israel;
who openest, and no man shut-
teth; shuttest, and no man open-
eth: come thou, and lead forth
the prisoner from the prison-
house, and him that sitteth in
darkness, and in the shadow of
Aurem tuam, quaesumus,
Domine, precibus nostris ac-
commoda: et mentis nostrae
tenebras gratia tuae visita-
tionis illustra: Qui vivis.
The Prayer
Incline Thy ear, Lord, we be-
seech Thee, unto our prayers,
and lighten the darkness of
our minds by the grace of
Thy visitation; Who livest.
December 17
Orietur vobis timentibus no-
men meum sol justitiae, et
sanitas in pennis ejus.
The Chapter
Unto you that fear my name,
the Sun of justice shall arise,
and health in his wings.
(Malachi 4, 2)
Aña O Oriens, * splendor lu-
aeternae, et sol justi tiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
Aña O Dayspring, * splendor
of the light eternal, and sun
of justice; come thou, and
enlighten them that sit in
darkness and the shadow of
Mentes nostras, quaesumus,
Domine, gratia tuae visita-
tionis illustra: ut esse te lar-
giente mereamur et inter
prospera humiles, et inter
adversa securi. Qui cum.
The Prayer
Enlighten our minds, we be-
seech Thee, Lord, by the
grace of Thy visitation; that
of Thy bounty we may merit
to be humble in prosperity,
and safe in adversity. Who
with the Father.
December 18
Ecce dies veniunt, dicit Do-
minus, et suscitabo David
germen justum: et regnabit
rex, et sapiens erit, et faciet
judicium et justitiam in
The Chapter
Behold the days come, saith
the Lord, and I will raise up
to David a just branch: and a
king shall reign, and shall be
wise, and shall execute
judgment and justice upon
the earth. (Jeremiah 23, 5)
Aña O Rex gentium, * et desi-
deratus earum, lapisque angu-
laris, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem
de limo formasti.
Aña O King of the gentiles, *
and the Desire thereof, and
cornerstone that makest of
twain one: come, to save
man, whom Thou didst
make from the mud of the
Excita, quaesumus, Domine,
potentiam tuam, et veni: ut
ab imminentibus peccatorum
nostrorum periculis, te mere-
amur protegente eripi, te libe-
rante salvari: Qui vivis.
The Prayer
Stir up Thy strength, o Lord,
we beseech Thee, and come;
that we may merit to be deli-
vered from the imminent dan-
gers of our sins by Thee our
protector, and saved by Thee
our liberator. Who livest.
December 19
Dominus enim judex noster,
Dominus legifer noster, Do-
minus rex noster, ipse sal-
vabit nos.
The Chapter
For the Lord is our judge, the
Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord
is our king: he will save us.
(Isaiah 33, 22)
Aña O Emmanuel, * Rex et
legifer noster, exspectatio
gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Do-
mine, Deus noster.
Aña O Emmanuel, * our King
and Lawgiver, longing of the
Gentiles, and Savior thereof:
come Thou to save us, o Lord
our God.
Omnipotens Christe, Unige-
genite Dei, propitius ad sal-
vandum populum in te cre-
dentem veni: ut benignitate
solita ab omni dubietate et
metu temporis nos jubeas
liberari: Qui cum Deo Patre.
The Prayer
Christ Almighty, Onlybegotten
Son of God, of Thy mercy
come Thou to save the people
that believeth in Thee; that by
Thy wonted kindliness, Thou
mayest command us to be
freed of every doubt, and
fear of our times. Who with
the Father...
The translations of the Scriptural passages are taken from the Douay-Rheims version; where the quotation is different from the actual words of Scripture (a common enough feature of medieval liturgical texts), I have placed the changed words in italics. The translations of the antiphons are based on those in the English version of the Roman Breviary by the Marquess of Bute, with many modifications; those of the prayers are my own. The Chapter which accompanies O Radix Jesse is based on Isaiah 11, 10, but is actually quoted from a responsory of the Third Sunday of Advent. Likewise, the prayer which accompanies O Clavis David is that of the Third Sunday of Advent, and that which accompanies O Rex gentium is that of the First Sunday.
A 15th century stained glass window of Augsburg Cathedral, showing the Coronation of the Virgin Mary at top, the Annunciation on the lower left, and the Birth of Christ on the lower right.

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