Tonight, as the skies change from dark blue to inky black, the community will gather in the chapel for Vespers, but with a heightened sense of excitement, for tonight until 23 December, we sing the special series of Magnificat antiphons known as the ‘O’ antiphons. They are a sign that Christmas is close and our joy at the nearness of salvation intensifies.
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 most Benedictines still use today.
The antiphons are intoned 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 the church bells. In former times there were pittances (extra snacks or small treats) 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 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.
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 prudence.
I suggest having a look at Isaiah 11.2-3; Isaiah 28.29 and thinking about the parallel between Wisdom and the Word of God, endlessly creative. There are times when we are tempted to despair. Folly seems to be prevalent in the world but the idea of prudence as an antidote is not particularly attractive, is it? It is virtue in its stiffest Victorian dress. But we must remember Benedict saw prudence as the mother of all the virtues, so in itself prudence must have more to commend it. Perhaps if we were to see prudence as compassionate and generous, a caring virtue, we would see why it is identified with divine Wisdom — and be encouraged to practise it. As you listen to the recording of the antiphon (sung by men, not us), try to make the prayer your own.