As we begin this time of Late Advent, so we begin the great “O" Antiphons, which lead up to the Vigil of the Nativity. Each antiphon highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel (O God With Us), and they are taken from the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming of the Messiah.
The order of the antiphons isn't accidental. If we work backwards, beginning with the last title and take the first letter of each antiphon — Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” The Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and to whom we refer in these seven Messianic titles, tells us: “Tomorrow, I will come.”
Those of us who, God willing, will soon be part of the Ordinariate and, therefore, “keepers” (or, better, “sharers”) of the Anglican Patrimony, which our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, sees as enriching the liturgical and devotional life of the whole Catholic Church, have a special gem in this crown of late Advent jewels, a gem lost to much of the Western Church with the passage of years.
Of course, most of the Catholic Church already shares our Patrimony’s gift regarding the O Antiphons in the metrical translation of these antiphons, the universally beloved: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” That translation is, in large part, the work of the famed Anglican priest, translator and hymnographer, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), to whose scholarly and literary gifts the Anglican Church owes its recovery of the great treasury of pre-Reformation Latin hymnody.
But regarding the antiphons themselves, check any of the Latin originals or Anglo-Catholic liturgical revival English translations of the venerable Sarum Use Missals and Breviaries and you may be surprised to see, in the Kalendar of these volumes, the notation O Sapientia (the first of the O Antiphons) opposite December 16 rather than December 17, which is a clear indication that in the Sarum Use, the O Antiphons began a day earlier than they did in the Roman Rite.
This is because there was an extra O Antiphon proper to the Sarum Use, which it will soon be our privilege to sing once again in full communion with the See of Rome, and which we happily share with the wider Catholic Church.
Sarum began the O Antiphons with O Sapientia on December 16th because on December 23, as the Roman Rite was completing its cycle of the O Antiphons by singing its seventh one, “O Emmanuel,” the ancestors of the Anglican Patrimony, having sung “O Emmanuel” the day before, December 22nd, were completing their O Antiphons by singing their unique eighth O Antiphon — a most fitting antiphon indeed to echo throughout the monasteries and churches of the land known then – and now again – as “Our Lady’s Dowry,” the antiphon O Virgo virginum:
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? quia nec primam similem visa es, nec habere sequentem. Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? for neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? the thing which ye behold, is a divine mystery.
Actually, this antiphon never completely disappeared in the West. The Carmelite Order (O.Carm.), which had come to England from Palestine after the Crusades, enriched their own proper Rite (from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem), with elements they encountered in the English Uses, principal among these, of course, the Sarum Use. One of these treasures was the Feast, on December 18, of “The Expectation of the Child-bearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (In Expectatione Partus B. Mariae Virginis). In the Carmelite Rite’s Vespers for that day, the Antiphon at the Magnificat is none other than the Sarum Use’s O Virgo virginum, which the Carmelites followed with the O Antiphon that came on that day in the Roman schedule, O Adonai. Similarly, the Carmelite Rite’s Compline Office features many of the antiphons for the Nunc dimittis, the Canticle of Simeon, that appeared in the Sarum Use; most notably the late Lenten Media vitae, “In the midst of life, we are in death,” which was so beloved by Thomas Cranmer that he made sure he preserved it in the Book of Common Prayer by inserting it into the Burial Rite. But our Patrimony’s Compline antiphons are a topic for another day.
For this year’s late Advent O Antiphons, let's rediscover this precious Marian gem from our heritage, and reappropriate it on our journey home to Rome, sharing it with the wider Church. How pleased the Anglican musicologist, the Rev. G.H. Palmer and the Anglican nuns of Saint Mary’s, Wantage would be to hear this Antiphon sung again, this time by the faithful of an Anglican Ordinariate in full communion with the See of Peter, and which you can access here: O Virgin of Virgins.