O Emmanuel

The antiphon for 23rd December is O Emmanuel:

O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God! 

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster

Click here to hear it chanted by the Dominican students at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Emmanuel means “God with us.” This title directs us to the Incarnation, in which God himself becomes flesh, like us: a man in all ways but sin. This is the final O antiphon. Tomorrow, in the dark of night, he arrives. We welcome Wisdom, the Lord on high, the Branch of Jesse, the Key of David, the Radiant Dawn, the King of Nations: Emmanuel, God with us. 


O Rex Gentium

The antiphon for 22nd December is O Rex Gentium (O King of Nations, or O King of the Gentiles):

King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth! 

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti

Click here to hear it chanted.

The long awaited Messiah of the Jews comes as a king for all nations. In a reversal of the expected order of things, he does not conquor by force, nor is he born into a ruling family (though he is of royal lineage). At his first coming Christ has the humblest of beginnings: poverty, homelessness, feeble flesh; but in these last days before Christmas we are reminded of the last days before Advent and the feast in Christ the King. Advent remembers the first coming and anticipates the second. When he comes again we shall see him in his Glory. We shall know him as King. 


O Oriens

  The antiphon for 21st December is O Oriens (O Radiant Dawn or O Dayspring):

Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death! 

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. 

 Click here to hear it chanted by the Blackfriar Dominicans.

At the end of a horror movie is the dawn. Evil has ruled the night, but salvation comes with first light. This modern metaphor can help us to understand this title: Jesus, the Radiant Dawn, saves us who have dwelt in darkness, and banishes the horror of a life without grace. 

O Clavis David

Today’s antiphon is O Clavis David (O Key of David):

Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death. 

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis. 

Click here to hear it chanted.

These antiphons are ancient. They were already being prayed in the first centuries of the Church, and are mentioned by Boethius (480-524) in connection with monastic prayer. Praying these antiphons over seven nights leading up to Christmas concentrates the gradually-unfolded prophesies of the coming Messiah into one short week. It is striking that over the centuries, or even millenia, before the birth of Jesus, faith in the Messiah to come was directed not to a specific baby who would be born in Bethlehem, but towards whosoever would be the fulfillment of these prophetic titles. And so, in the final days of advent, we are invited to anticipate the arrival of the Messiah not through the familiar Christmas story, but through ancient titles given to a people whose faith was in an unseen God. 

O Radix Iesse

The antiphon for 19th December is O Radix Iesse (O Root of Jesse):

Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry. 

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

Click here to listen to the chant. 

All of the O antiphons are prayed before and after the Magnificat during Vespers. The Magnificat, also called the Cantical of Mary, is the great prayer of Our Lady from Luke 1:46-55. Each night at Vespers, or Evening Prayer, which is the penultimate hour of the liturgy of the hours, the antiphon for the day is recited, then the Magnificat, and then the antiphon is repeated. You can hear (and see) it chanted in Latin by the Dominicans here with today’s antiphon. The English words are below.


O Adonai

The antiphon for 18th December is O Adonai, addressing Jesus under the title of Lord and God of Israel.

Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm.

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento. 

Click here to hear it sung by the Domincan students at Blackfriars.

Even if you have not heard of the O Antiphons before, you may well know the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, which is based upon them. This link shows the overlap of the traditional antiphons with the verses of the hymn (in English and Latin), as well as giving the scriptural references that are their origin.

O Sapientia 

Tonight begins the Golden Nights, the octave leading up Christmas. In the old Latin breviary this is marked each evening from now until Christmas by the singing of the O Antiphons before the Magnificat at Vespers. The O Antiphons address the coming Lord under different titles from the Isiaic and Michan prophesies, filling out our image and understanding of the Babe of Bethlehem:

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord of Israel)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) 
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Radiant Dawn)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of All Nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O God With Us)

The medieval mnemonic for remembering these was that, backwards, the first letter of each title is an acrostic: ERO CRAS, meaning ‘I come tomorrow.’ 

 Today’s antiphon, in English and Latin is:

Oh Wisdom, which proceeded from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end, mightily and sweetly disposing all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.

 O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

You can hear it sung (which takes under a minute) by the Dominican students at Blackfriars, Oxford, by clicking here.

Great Stacks of Scribblings 

The S houshold should have a black spot on the front door, to warn off anyone disinclined to catch the plague. But this might deter the various delivery men bringing the Christmas shopping, so all that has been posted is a terse threat to anyone who dares to ring the bell and wake the baby. After two weeks of being coughed and sneezeed upon by three virus-ridden children, I have developed my own viral yuckiness, and then bacterial grossness, and have not left the house, except to go to the doctor’s, in, ooooo…ever so long. However, on antibiotics and sundry other wonders of the modern pharmaceutical industry, I decided to attempt a bit of housework today, a bit of sorting out, a bit of clearing out, and what interesting discoveries there are to be distracted by when one isn’t really invested in the task at hand…

In amongst spare teaching handouts, folded into books, tucked into folders and between the pages of old notebooks were reems of paper covered with bits of stories. I knew these were there, of course. I come across them regularly, but this time I decided to consolidate old drafts into one place, and found I had several hundred pages of fiction written over the past twelve years, much of it from that period in my life when I was working hard at being a failed philosopher.


Back when Mrs S was newly Mrs S, she was living in St Louis, Missouri, while Mr S was working in London, and attempting to finish up her PhD in philosophy…quickly. Three years of postgraduate coursework, undergrad teaching, and four written comprehensive exams (in Ancient, Medieval, Modern and Contemprary philosophy) into the degree, Mrs S was facing the next hurdle: oral comprehensive exams. These are a fairly big deal in the program: two hours of examination by a panel of five senior professors in the candidate’s declared area of specialisation. Mrs S was being examined on Ethics, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, continung through Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard, and on to some modern virtue thinkers like Alasdair McIntyre and feminist thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Claudia Card. There was even bit of TS Eliot & Dante thrown in. Given the breadth of the material, and the level of expertise expected from an oral exam candidate, the prudent and correct thing to do in the days and hours leading up to the ordeal would be to make and review systematic notes on central arguments, controversies and themes, refamiliarise oneself with key passages and have a practice question or two with one’s director of studies. But Mrs S had been spending a lot of her time writing cheap romance — she was still ostensively trying to be a philosopher, and so committing the time effort to anything less fluffy seemed somehow less defensible than writing a page or two of drivel here and there, in between marking essays and reading serious, work-related texts. Now, despite a nagging feeling that she was totally unprepared for whatever was going to happen that afternoon, and because she copes with stress primarily through dissociation, Mrs S spent the morning of her oral comps attempting to write a credible sex scene (if credible is the right word), as this was all that her tawdry romantic fiction was lacking. An hour or so before she had to leave she was siezed with a mild sort of panic, which did not spur her to do any actual work, but did motivate her to get off the couch and go bake some muffins, in case the panel of her ethics exam committee was bribable. 

The lesson to take away from this whole sad tale is that if this is how you prepare for a major exam academic philosophy may not be your calling. Sadly, Mrs S did not get the message that she had already chosen writing over academia for her exam went surprisingly well, though she was quite short with a usually-beloved professor who asked her a question about Deontology and Utilitarianism because she was so over that whole pseudo-controversy she just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to think about it any more. After the exam they all had muffins and in due course the letter arrived saying that she had passed, with distinction. 

So, conveniently forgetting the three and a half years of actual graft that had gone into that result, Mrs S mentally shrugged and took this surprising result as vindication of her ever-diminishing attention to matters philosophical. This is of course directly responsible for her less-than-successful attempt to actually write a dissertation. She got as far as outlining an argument (after a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus), that the proper end of moral philosophy is not knowledge of ethics, per se, or the discovery of decision procedures, but the formation of the soul; and so because only a very great fool would think that philosophical essays can properly form the soul, clearly the philosophical essay is not the correct form for moral philosophy. So let’s spend some time looking at Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday instead… There are days when Mrs S would still like to write this dissertation, but given the monumental mess she made of her course in the end, this seems unlikely. The subtext was, after all, ‘Go away. I just want to write novels,’ and philosophical dissertations really have no business having subtext of any kind. What Mrs S will write, someday, is a post on why all novels, indeed all literary stories, are works of moral philosophy, whether they intend to be or not, and even if they intend not to be. But now we have had enough philosophy for one day. 

And if you are wondering: No, Mrs S cannot write a good sex scene. Or at least not one she would dream of publishing. Look elsewhere for your smut.


Of the great stacks of writing I unearthed, there were scenes and even whole chapters from projects barely developed, or now abandoned, as well as no fewer than four earlier incarnations of various parts of The Artist and the Serpent. There are long tracts from another fairly advanced project, tentetively entited Tenebres (after the Benedictine Holy Thursday candle-lit prayers), which I cannot decide whether to continue or not. It is weighty and theological, though, I think, a grippingly good story. It has TS Eliot epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, and an underlying meditation about the nature of marriage and human brokenness. A light adventure of detective fiction it is not, but rereading it has reminded me that some of it is actually fairly good. Then there are various riffs on characters that have not yet been incorperated into any story, paragraphs rewritten in different voices to try and find the right ‘fit,’ whole chapters written in completely different settings or even centuries than those in which the stories are now (in my mind) set, some scenes I would never now use for plot reasons, and some that are so stunningly, laughably bad that I should probably burn them (but won’t).

For at least a half hour I was discouraged by all this. Hundreds of pages, a small subset of what I have actually produced, written over more than a decade, and I have no finished product, nothing that I can publish, nothing that seems to justify the great volume of paper and ink consumed or the hours lost in another world. But I have rallied, mostly because there is definite progress to be observed in all these pages.  My schedule is wonky, but the process is there. (I just don’t finish well without a firm, externally-imposed deadline. A professor from my undergrad days recently requested that I actually finish a novel before he dies. I would love to oblige. I just need something a bit more precise to be getting on with. My husband despairs.)

All that self-regarding revelation aside, this blog has been helpful, for when I feel I should be posting, I procrastinate by writing what I should actually be writing. In an attempt to make it do even more for me (personal blogs by their nature are not really audience-regarding) I am adding a new page called Scribblings (at the top of this page, next to the About and The Artist and the Serpent pages) where I will sometimes post bits and pieces of fiction I’m working on. The longer these stories are just sheets of paper in a folder that no one else is allowed to read, the longer all of this will take. One way or another, I shall persuade myself there is enough external pressure to require results.  The first post on Scribblings is the discovery I made that most interested me. (Of course, I’m having a major plotting crisis with my main project so I am very prone to distraction…) It is the opening 1400 words of the first book in a series of four that I plotted one weekend a few years back, having given myself the writing prompt “write a YA series that’s better than Twilight.” For hypothetical marketing purposes I have called the books Out of Time, Out of Place, Out of Synch, and Out of Love, and I have decided that a bit of time travel would be more my thing than vampires and werewolves. When I came across this opening, I thought “Hmmm, I’d actually like to read the rest of this book…in fact I’d like to actually write the rest of this book.” My next challenge is to find a passage in The Artist and the Serpent that makes me think the same thing. (170 pages in and I hate it at the moment. HATE IT.) In the mean time, if you fancy a spot of fiction, click over to Scribblings and give it a go.

Advent of Mercy

Growing up in the United States, I always knew Advent would begin before we had properly digested out Thanksgiving dinner. Thursday morning we would be at mass singing ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ with harvest-themed decorations all around, then go home to cook and eat our Turkey feast; and Sunday we would return (as our turkey stock simmered at home) to sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’ and to light the first purple candle. Liturgically, in three short days we had gone from feasting with full hearts (and fuller bellies) on all we had been given to feeling acute hunger for what we lacked.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a part of the Church’s universal calendar, but it does fit nicely with the triumphant tone of the liturgical year end: Christ the King meets every need of the world, and a well-ordered creation can only answer with gratitude and praise. Too, it is always celebrated, since Abraham Lincoln so decreed it a national feast, on the fourth Thursday of November, and Thursday is of course the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, a word which itself means “thanksgiving.” So, while Americans commemorate the Pilgrim settler’s celebration of their first harvest in the New World, and the mercy of the Native tribes by whose help their labours bore fruit, they do well to remember also the true Bread from Heaven, the true food and true drink in which Christ’s mercy is manifest.

This year, owing to the constraints of time and space, I did not celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday as did my stateside relations. We had no feast until Sunday, on which day we also entered the season of Advent. As I was cooking a fifteen pound turkey to feed a family of five (which is not gluttony if you intend it to feed everyone for a full week…), I was telling my children the story of the Pilgrim settlers, and of Squanto and Samoset, the tribesmen who helped them to survive in the strange wilderness. The lessons we are meant to learn from this story (as I remember from my youth) are to be generous with those in need, like Squanto and Samoset, and to be thankful for all we are given, like the Pilgrims. We could just say that the lessons of Thanksgiving are about mercy.

Mercy is a great and powerful thing. It has been mangled in meaning to the point that many think it means giving licence to do whatever, that it gives a vindication of sin, or even the abolishment of sinfulness. But, if this were the case, how could mercy be of God? It is not about entitlement, either, for if we are entitled to something, then those who give it to us act with justice, not mercy. It is most true to say that mercy responds to needs which not even justice can fill, indeed, that justice may recoil from. As striking illustration of this consider that all of humanity stands in unambiguous need of a saviour, but that this does not mean we are entitled to Christ. The Incarnation is a profound act of mercy, meeting a need that has no remedy in justice. In another way, we can say that the Pilgrims, who made the decision to cross the ocean into the unknown, who plopped themselves on a coastline to which they had no specific claim, had no particular entitlement to local guides to help them find their footing, yet they got them nonetheless, and felt gratitude, which they expressed in a way that, however ostentatious, could never repay what they had been given.

On the 8th December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Jubilee of Mercy called by Pope Francis will begin. I am planning to make mercy the focus of my advent contemplation and preparation, and I invite you to join me. (This invitation is issued irrespective of your personal opinion of the Holy Father. Be you the most strident of his critics, you cannot cast aside mercy simply because he mentions it.) I shall take as my model the seven corporal acts of mercy, which care for the fleshy side of our being, and the seven spiritual acts of mercy, which care for the soul:

Corporal Acts of Mercy
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit the imprisoned
Bury the dead

Spiritual Acts of Mercy
Instruct the ignorant
Counsel the doubtful
Admonish the sinner
Bear wrongs patiently
Forgive willingly those who sin against you
Comfort the afflicted
Pray for the living and the dead

Each morning I shall pray for the wisdom to know how to be merciful, and the courage and fortitude to show mercy where it is most needed. I shall speak to my children about these fourteen works of mercy. When I fast I shall contemplate the mercy I have received in having enough to give up, that I give out of plenty, not out of want.

I do not believe that in these short few weeks of Advent I will become a saint, but in this season of contemplation it would be foolish not to try. I shall seek at all times to remember the tiny babe of Bethlehem, for the person of Christ more than any other teaches us about mercy: He alone can be truly merciful, for he alone can fulfil our deepest need, but to do this he took on flesh. He was born a tiny infant. As an infant he holds the promise and power of mercy as surely as he does as a conquering king, but in the guise of overwhelming need. Taking forward into this new liturgical year the lesson of Thanksgiving — gratitude for what we have been given — we are confronted our own underlying neediness. We have what we have out of mercy. Likewise, what is in our power to give should be given out of mercy, as surely as if we gave to the Christ child himself. One of the deep mysteries of the Incarnation is why, when he could win any battle of might against sin and death, Christ chose needy vulnerable flesh as his weapon to win us salvation. Perhaps it was to remove the shame from neediness and want. How can we despise the needy when they appear to us in the guise of the Christ Child?

Advent is a peculiar mix joyful anticipation and meditation on need and want, weakness and vulnerability. I am reminded of a selection from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which I encourage you to listen to (for which purposes google and youtube will be adequate), called “This Little Babe.” Meditate upon these words as we prepare to welcome Our Lord this Christmas.

This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stads for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound

My soul with Christ
join thou in fight;
stick to the tents
that he hath pight.
Within his crib
is surest ward;
this little Babe
will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy
foes with joy, then
flit not from this
heavenly boy!