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Reflections on the O Antiphons

By Br Jerome OSB, Petersham, MA (see links) based on conferences by Abbot Lawrence of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Ramsgate , Kent

17 December – O Sapientia – O Wisdom
“O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come and teach us the way of prudence.”
Much of what I write to you about the O Antiphons comes from what Abbot Lawrence of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Ramsgate , Kent, told us in his conferences. I’ve added a thing or two to this one, as well. These Great Antiphons, which are sung at the Magnificat of Vespers during the last days before Christmas, are among the oldest and most poetic parts of the Western Liturgy. Their language soars and waxes in elegance that one rarely finds in later forms. Yet, in all that exquisite poetry, awesome theology, more to the point, Christology abounds.
The Old Testament treats of Wisdom as the eldest daughter of creation, but also as a co-creator with God. Many of the OT references are commonly (and easily,) applied to the Holy Spirit, but this antiphon clearly applies them to Jesus.
A recurring theme in the O Antiphons is the ascription of qualities of Yahweh to Christ, underlining the fact that all of God’s divinity is Christ’s as well. The phrase here “from beginning to end” stresses the eternal divinity of Christ, before all time, and the fact that He “ordered all things mightily and sweetly” recalls the role of the Logos, the Word, as creator of all things in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel.His might is gentle, not harsh, He is forceful and holds a creator’s power, but sweetly, bearing these two traits, not in contrast, but in perfect, divine complement. Think of the greatest and most effective security protection imaginable, now think of that with none of the harsh sides of such power, but with the utmost tenderness of the gentlest of mothers. Multiply that image by infinity and you might have a faint fraction of the tenderness of God which enfolds His utter and absolute power. We have learned (often quite rightly!) to fear power, yet in God the power is to nurture, to love, to caress, not to harm. He cares deeply for all He orders “mightily and sweetly” and that especially includes us!

18 December – O Adonai – O Lord of might
“O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him Your Law: Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!”
Adonai, the Hebrew word meaning “Lord” had its vowel points used under the divine Name in Hebrew to warn the reader to substitute the euphemism “Lord” rather than say God’s Name. Applied to Jesus, in symbolic shorthand this says that Jesus is the God of the Covenant. In NT Greek, this was rendered “Kyrios” and therein lies an interesting connection to another antiphon, that of the Magnificat on Ascension. There, in the words of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His Father: “I have made known Your Name.” The name here is Yahweh, since the Greek referent is Kyrios. In other words, to say Adonai of Jesus is plainly to say that Jesus is God, is Yahweh.
The use of “house” here is in the sense of “family”, Jesus is the Ruler of the family of Israel. One may see a survival of that usage of house in our modern reference to the “house” of Windsor to mean the whole royal family. (Believe it or not, the Windsor reference came from me, the Yank.)
The stress of connections between Yahweh and Jesus is repeated twice more: it was Jesus Who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, Jesus Who gave the Law on Sinai. The first has always been a more popularly known patristic idea in the East. I have had Western priests come hesitantly close to arguing with me when I have expressed that very strong tradition in the East of Christ in the burning bush. Perhaps they are to be forgiven for forgetting an antiphon that only comes once a year, but lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of faith.
A third and final identification of Jesus with Yahweh is the image of the outstretched arm. The OT is rich with references to this. It is with “outstretched arm” that God shows His power and might, leads His people out of Egypt, delivers them from dangers. Just as Jesus was identified with the burning bush and the Law, so now He is linked to the Passover itself.

19 December – O Radix Jesse – O Root of Jesse
“O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. Come and save us and do not delay.” Isaiah prophesied the destruction of Judah and of David’s kingdom. However a stock, a root, a stump, if you will, would remain, the root of Jesse, David’s father. From that stock a sprout would burst forth which would be more than David, Whose power and esteem would be greater than that of the former kingdom.
Those of us living in the north can well appreciate this image. Winter comes, long winter, and nothing visible of a perennial’s splendor remains. Hidden in the earth, the life, the promise waits in the roots for spring. One clips the ugly remnant to the ground and awaits the resurgence in the coming Spring. There was a long winter of centuries for Jesse’s Root, but, when its Spring came it flowered forth Christ, the Messiah.
When Christ appears, He is, like the first sprigs of spring growth, much smaller than the tree which had been felled, and seemingly weaker and more vulnerable, yet His power and scope is far, far greater than that of those who preceded Him. Just as in the gentleness/strength contrast of ordering all things mightily and sweetly, here the apparent weakness, smallness and vulnerability of a new shoot is the embodiment of the greatest power imaginable. Jesus IS God, but He comes in vesture that hardly brings to mind a power broker. It is the topsy-turviness of the Gospel paradox.
This tender Sprig is actually an ensign for the nations, a rallying flag for all peoples and it is so in a way that the mighty tree of a kingdom which came first could never have hoped to be. Whatever may have been the temporary influence and prestige of Israel’s kings, it was nothing compared to what is promised here.

What we translate as “nations” and Latin renders as “gentes” had a very different significance for the Hebrews. By that term, they really meant “Gentiles” everyone who was not Jewish which, of course, included every nation- all the nations- other than themselves. Hence, this term, easily missed as innocuous in English or Latin, is far from it. It speaks directly to opening the promise of God’s salvation to ALL peoples, to the New Israel which is the Body of Christ, whose membership is potentially the entire world. The tiny Branch will break down walls and barriers.

This is the first day we add some special urgency to our daily plea of “come!” We add: “and do not delay.” The most casual glance at the world’s leaders and the state of things today will reveal that the fullness of the Messiah’s role as a rallying point for all, before Whom all rulers shall be silent, is hardly just around the corner. We affirm that by our urgency, by begging Him to hurry!

A final Benedictine aside, which I think plays so well with the imagery of this antiphon may be found in a popular symbol for Monte Cassino. The great abbey, so often destroyed in its long history, is depicted as the stump of a huge and mighty tree, with a tender green shoot growing from its center. The Latin motto which accompanies the image is “Succisa Virescit” that is, “Cut down, it grows back.”

20 December – O Clavis David – O Key of David

“O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and none may close, You close and none may open. Come and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
The Hebrew word for key means something that opens, while the Greek and Latin terms both refer to something which closes. Jesus is the Key and He can open us to infinite possibilities, just as He can also close us to shut us away from dangers. He can open our prisons and free us, but He can also lock the city gates for our safety. When He opens, none may close, when He closes, none may open: when Jesus makes an election or decision for us it is irrevocable.

The key is a symbol of authority. Even today, in the blessing of an abbot or abbess, a very important symbolic act is the handing over of the keys to the abbey, clearly pointing to the authority enjoyed over it by the one newly blessed. Jesus speaks of the keys of the kingdom on heaven, and demonstrates that He Himself holds them by His ability to hand them over to His Church. Isaiah 22:22 repeats the antiphon almost word for word, but it is not necessarily a messianic passage. It refers to a civil ruler whom God supports. His key of the house of David underscores the approval God gives to all his acts. St. John applies this passage to Jesus, and the liturgy follows suit.

Most appropriately, since today we praise the supreme divine authority of Jesus with the symbol of a key, we ask Him to open our prisons of darkness and unlock the chains of sin and death that bind us still. It might be useful to remember that, as He opens, none may close. Hence, if He frees us from sin and death, from the various prisons of darkness we languish in, none may send us back there, save ourselves alone.

21 December – O Oriens – O Dawn
I realize that most modern renderings have “O Rising Dawn”, but indulge me in this one. As a lover of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I vastly prefer the much more poetic “O Dayspring” And besides, who said translation must be pedestrian to be relevant? (It often seems someone must have….) “Daypsring” also carries the hopeful connotation of Spring-to-come, of Resurrection, a powerful thought on the first day of winter! It is especially so this year, as Massachusetts is swathed in early snow and ice!
“O Dayspring, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”

I wonder if the appearance of today’s sun image landed on the winter solstice accidentally. Given the Middle Ages’ fascination with such things, one would suspect it was deliberate choice. Just as the natural sun ebbs to it weakest point, the Sun of Justice Who shall never diminish, is proclaimed. The images today, while reflected in both Old and New Testaments are more from nature than those of the days preceding.

Jesus calls Himself the Light and the Life. Surely the sun gives both, and so, here does the Sun of Justice. We could not live without the sun, our planet would be a barren, frozen wasteland without it. The image of dawn, of the dayspring, holds a further message: the sun is too blinding to look at at noon, but the gentler sun of both rising and setting is not only gentler and less extreme, but floods the sky and the earth with its lovelier color and majesty. This is yet another repetition of the theme of gentleness/strength. The reference to the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:1-2) contrasts two experiences of the Messianic power “glowing like a furnace.” For the wicked, it will burn them like chaff, but for those who fear God’s name, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing.” Jesus’ power and majesty and strength are truly a balm to us.

Naturally, to Christian (and especially Benedictine!) ears, the most obvious connections here will be those of the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zachary in Luke 1:78-79, the “Oriens ex alto”, the dayspring from on high, which shall burst forth and shine on all those “who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” The message today is the end of darkness, the end of shadow, the end of death. The Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness has dispelled them all.

The Radiance of the Light eternal is found in Hebrews 1:3 as an attribute of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. My favorite translation, the New English Bible, renders it thus: “…the Son Who is the effulgence of God’s splendour and the stamp of God’s being and sustains the universe by His word of power.” The Son is, as we say in the Creed, truly “Light from Light.” He would not have to do anything to end the world, He would have to STOP doing something, stop willing it and us, stop sustaining it. The creation is the daily and ever present act of the Son, something ongoing in His will maintaining all that is.

Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death are not just a group of outsiders. There are many such corners of gloom in our own souls, to which we frequently retire for a holiday from the struggles of grace. Today we invite the Sun to illuminate even those recesses, to leave us no place to hide from Him in the damp and chill of selfishness.

[Lou Ann Smith adds:

Here is another “take” on this idea, taken from the great Lutheran Chorale for Epiphany. The author is Phillip Nicolai, a Lutheran Pastor (17th century, I think), who also wrote “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying”. Enjoy! Lou Ann
O Morning Star, how fair and bright!
Thou beamest forth in truth and light,
O Sovereign meek and lowly!
Thou Root of Jesse, David’s Son,
My Lord and Master, Thou hast won
My heart to serve Thee solely!
Thou art holy,
Fair and glorious, all victorious, rich in blessing
Rule and might over all possessing.

Thou heavenly Brightness! Light divine!
O deep within my heart now shine,
And make Thee there an altar!
Fill me with joy and strength to be
Thy member, ever, joined to Thee
In love that cannot falter;
Toward Thee longing
Doth possess me; turn and bless me; here in sadness
Eye and heart long for Thy gladness!]

22 December – O Rex Gentium

“O King of the nations [Gentiles] and Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two into one: Come, and save humankind whom You formed out of clay.”

The antiphons before today were heavily Jewish in their Messianic content and this one begins that way, but then presents a radical stumbling to Israel’s usual position. The Jews were not exactly noted for rabid ecumenism. Their customary ecumenical stance was, alas, rather closely akin to that of the Catholic Counter- Reformation: “Someday they’ll all come crawling and groveling to us on OUR terms.” Sadly, the New Israel can, at times, all too closely resemble the Old in some respects.

No problem for the Jews with “King of nations” (Jer. 10:7) or the Desired of all, (Hag.2:8) these fit the old pattern comfortably. There is even a cornerstone tradition in Isaiah 28:16, but “as the foundation of Sion,” not a union with all peoples. The jarring note is in “the cornerstone that binds the two into one.” This is definitely not the way Israel expected the Gentiles to “wake up and get with it.” This is God Himself being the binder, even part of the bond, the very cause of unity. This is that perfect union which does not make those united feel smaller or less, because God Himself is thrown into the breach of union.

Just as Christ has broken down the walls dividing us from the Father, so is He also the cause and source of our unity with all humanity. This is very Pauline, expressed in both Eph.2:14 and Gal.3:29 as Christ being the peace between Jew and Gentile. That wall, humanly speaking, between Jew and Gentile was very high. Jews could not eat with Gentiles, many civil observances of foreign lands were proscribed for them and their refusal to follow these was a source of frequent persecution. In Mosaic law, Jewish nationality was conferred by birth from a Jewish mother. The children of a Jewish man and a non- Jewish wife would not even be Jews, a fact still true today.

The quote from Galatians has further applications to human unity: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus. But if you thus belong to Christ, you are the issue of Abraham and so heirs by promise.” Here we see not only the wall dividing Jew and Gentile torn down, but even the customary way of becoming Jews and heirs to the promise overthrown. No Jewish male could confer membership in Israel. It travelled through the mother. Christ makes it clear that He unites all in a new dispensation, one which supersedes the old. It is significant that a role limited to women, in an age that scorned them, is ascribed to Jesus by St. Paul, hardly the greatest fan of women himself, without so much as a shrug of apology.
The Old Israel cherishes promises and waits for their fulfillment.
The New Israel, in its delight that the Messiah has come, often forgets that it, too, must wait for the fulfillment of the promise and that the waiting is terrible, painful frustration. No one can look at the quote from Galatians and smugly assume that we are there. Anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, religious hatreds, homophobia, misogyny and misandry color our world and sometimes even our Church. Hate crimes fill the news all too often. (Once would be too often…) We have made a stab at slave and free, but little more than that.

What we miss is that these changes have already been effected, perfectly, in Christ. The unity, the equality, promises are here: they are REAL. All that impedes their full realization is just that: their “real-ization” and discovery in our human hearts. The way to bring about the promise is to live as if it were already here: because it is! If every person did that, even to their own personal cost and detriment, you would see changes in our world and churches literally overnight.

Lastly, there is a reality check that is not too palatable to our modern ears, the reminder that we were formed out of clay. Several decades of self-affirming pop psychology in the late 20th century may have done their work a bit too well in some of us. The Latin “limus” which is here rather flatteringly rendered as “clay” has the more common sense of “mud, slime, or mire.” Even if we now realize that the creation of humanity was not a literal case of God making patty- cake with clay, the message here is quite clear. The most cursory examination of conscience will reveal how close to our origins we can often slip. (You potters out there should pardon the pun…)

If this reflection may have inflamed a few, please do not blame Abbot Lawrence. Most of this was me, after reading Parsch.

23 December – O Emmanuel

Since tomorrow is First Vespers of Christmas, actually beginning the solemnity, today’s antiphon is the last of the great O Antiphons. The Roman Church formerly made more extensive use of the Jewish custom of beginning feasts the night before, spanning sunset to sunset, but now reserves that practice for Sundays and solemnities. Too bad, in a way. First Vespers of many lesser feasts used to be a joy, and it was a further connection to our Jewish roots.

A bit of trivia, for which I am indebted to Joyce, who learned it in a Dominican college in the 50’s. If you take the first letters of the second words (after the initial O,) which begin each antiphon, you get the acronym: SARCORE. Read backwards, on Dec. 24, that spells “Ero cras” Latin for “Tomorrow I will be (there)”. Now some monk of the Middle Ages must have had a lot of time on his (or her!) hands to figure that one out.

It is worth noting that the Orthodox Slavs share a very Jewish custom, (usually linked to the weekly Sabbath,) on Christmas Eve. The Orthodox fast on that day, then share a meatless, but festive Holy Supper in the evening after the first star has appeared. (I think the Jewish custom actually waits for the second star to appear…) In folk tradition, the first star was regarded as that of Bethlehem, which led the Magi.
“O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of Nations and their
Savior: come, and save us, O Lord our God!”

Emmanuel- God with us- this was a radical fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies which the Jews had never dreamed would happen: a divine Messiah. Though the promises all refer to and fit Jesus, the Messiah expected by the Israelites was not divine. To their reasoning, none could be literally divine, really the Son of God. Their expectation of a saving ruler did not assume that God would share His very nature and essence with the Anointed One.

Emmanuel reflects an entirely Christian and entirely new theology, one of Incarnation and an immanence hitherto unknown. God with us, sharing every hardship of humanity in His own flesh, dwelling not in a Temple spiritually, but as flesh and blood among humanity, wishing to remain with us until the end of time. This is a dramatic contrast to the affection, yet distance with which the Lord was regarded in the Old Testament.

Emmanuel- God with us- it finally springs the liturgical construct of “waiting” all through and admits that we knew He was there all along. Advent has that flavor, of a pretended waiting for Him Whom we know to have already arrived. We place ourselves in the shoes of those who had Him not in order to better appreciate Him Whom we have had all along.
We hail Christ as King and Lawgiver (Isaiah 32:22,) and echo the dying words of Jacob in Gen. 49:10, ” The scepter will not pass from Judah, nor a ruler form his thigh, till He comes that is to be sent. He is the expectation of the nations.” We ask Him to save us. The Latin “Salva” , the imperative form of “to save,” is related to “salus”, health, wholeness. We are asking for a holistic well- being of mind, soul and body when we thus ask to be saved. We are, in fact, asking to finally be made perfect, fully whole and sound, something only God can do!

Lastly, we no longer beat around the bush, (burning or otherwise!) We come right out and directly call Jesus “our Lord and our God.” It is the crowning acclamation of faith to a long season of expectation.
A blessed late Advent and Christmas to you all. I have enjoyed sharing these with you because I truly feel they are the best poetry left in the liturgy of the West, even beating out the now pared-down Exultet at Easter!

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