Merry Christmas

The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us.


After a week of musical meditation on the O Antiphons, I have found myself thinking today on this carol by Robert Herrick, which expresses so beautifully the joy we feel at the birth of the Infant Christ, the completely right instinct to feast and celebrate, and the nuptial joy of the Earth at the arrival of the Saviour. Today, many know these words better as they were adapted by John Rutter in his song What Sweeter Music, performed in the link by the Cambridge Singers. 

Merry Christmas, one and all!

            Carol for Christmas      -Robert Herrick

WHAT sweeter music can we bring     Than a carol for to sing 

    The birth of this our Heavenly King? 

    Awake the voice! awake the string! 

    Heart, ear, and eye, and everything 

    Awake! 

1. Dark and dull night fly hence away! 
    And give the honour to this day 

    That sees December turn’d to May. 

 2. If we may ask the reason, say 

    The why and wherefore all things here 

    Seem like the spring-time of the year. 

 3. Why does the chilling winter’s morn 

    Smile like a field beset with corn? 

    Or smell like to a meadow new shorn, 

    Thus on a sudden?

4. Come and see 
    The cause why things thus fragrant be: 

    ’Tis He is born, whose quickening birth 

    Gives life and lustre, public mirth, 

    To heaven and the under-earth. 

Chorus

    We see Him come, and know Him ours, 

    Who with his sunshine and his showers 

    Turns all the patient ground to flowers. 

 1. The darling of the world is come, 

    And fit it is we find a room 

    To welcome Him.

2. The nobler part 
    Of all the house here is the heart, 

 Chorus

    Which we will give Him; and bequeath 

    This holly and this ivy wreath 

    To do Him honour, who’s our King 

    And Lord of all this revelling.

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):
O 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 did not conquor by force, nor was he born into a ruling family (though he is of royal lineage). At his first coming Christ had 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 great feast of Christ the King. Advent is not just about a paint-the-nursery type of anticipation: it is also a season to raise an army. (This idea is wonderfully expressed in this rousing reflection by Msgr Charles Pope on dragons at Christmas.) We are preparing to celebrate the birth of a tiny baby more than two millenia ago on Christmas morning, but when we welcome this babe 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):

O 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.

Christ In Limbo, by Fra Angelico

These antiphons are ancient. They were already being prayed in the first centuries of the Church, for they are mentioned by Boethius (480-524) in connection with established monastic prayer practice. 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 through the ages before the birth of Jesus, faith in the Messiah to come was directed not towards 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):

O 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.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed:

the Almighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him

in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,

he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel

for he remembered his promise of mercy,

the promise he made to our fathers,

to Abraham and his children forever. 
(Lk 1:46-55)

O Adonai

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

O 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

Icon from the Bishop’s Palace Chapel in Wells; Photo by Mrs S


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

Even if you have not heard of the O Antiphons before now, 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

A year ago I published a series of short meditations of the O Antiphons. Shortly after that I abandoned the blog without notice in favour of concentrated work on The Novel. As it happens, The Novel is now about a week’s worth of editing away from being sent to agents (on which more later), and, out of nowehere, two complete strangers emailed to ask me to repost them this year. Having imagined that the long, unexplained hiatus had alienated my faithful   readership of twelve persons (which includes my mother), this outpouring of enthusiasm was stunning. So, I shall honour this request, reposting the O Antiphon meditations daily, with the hope that this exercise will be a small step towards new weekly posts come January. St Francis de Sales, pray for us!

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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.