Every day at Vespers (Evening Prayer), the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) is accompanied by an antiphon or refrain which gives a particular focus to the celebration. From the 17 to 23 December a special sequence of antiphons is used known as the O antiphons (all begin with the word ‘O’) or Greater antiphons. They are of ancient origin although no one is quite sure when they were first used. Boethius (fifth century) mentions them, and by the eighth century the abbey of St Benoît sur Loire had elaborated a solemn ritual which most Benedictines still use today.
The antiphons are sung by different members of the community (usually the seniors), and ‘care’ is taken to ensure that certain officials receive antiphons appropriate to their office. Thus, the gardener is thought a good choice for O Radix Jesse, while the cellarer (bursar) is considered a fitting match for O Clavis David.
A specially grand book is used for the antiphons and the singing of them is accompanied by the ringing of all the church bells. In former times there were pittances in the refectory to mark the day. Thus, the gardener might give the community a few dried plums or raisins; the cellarer might add an extra allowance of wine, and so on. The intention was to mark these days out as days of proximate preparation to Christmas, at once solemn and joyful.
At present, there are seven O antiphons in use. Each addresses Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament. Read backwards, the initials of each title in Latin form the words Cras ero or ‘Tomorrow I shall be (with you)’.
Adonai (Holy Lord)
Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
Clavis David (Key of David)
Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star)
Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
In the Middle Ages not only were different melodies sometimes used (the Worcester Antiphoner, for example, has some very elaborate settings for the antiphons) but even the number of antiphons varied. According to the Sarum Use, eight antiphons were sung so the whole sequence began a day earlier and ended on 23 December with O Virgo virginum. That made the initials read Vero cras. ‘Truly tomorrow (I shall be with you).’
The structure of the seven antiphons we now use is essentially the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: come and show us the way of prudence, come and save us with outstretched arm, and so on, and all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern. The music for the first of the antiphons is shown below, but you can hear each being sung if you click on the player button beneath the texts. The melody ducts and weaves around what our oblate, Fr Alex Lane, describes as ‘an unstable note in the Second Mode, which suggests just how fragile we are.’
If you want to follow the antiphons through the week, I’ll give the texts each day in Latin and English, with a few suggestions about the scriptural texts you might ponder in connection with each. Probably the best-known version in English is the hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’.
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth.
Have a look at Isaiah 11:2-3; Isaiah 28:29 and think about the parallel between Wisdom and the Word of God, endlessly creative. Now listen to the antiphon being sung: