Friday, December 24, 2004


One more "O" Antiphon

In England, there was an eighth antiphon, 'O virgo virginum', 'O virgin of virgins', applied to Mary; an example of English exuberance spoiling
the careful and spare patterning of the Roman liturgy.
-Fr. East.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? for neither, before thee was any seen like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? the thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Most authors agree that there were seven original 'O Antiphons' and that they are a very ancient expression of Christian Prayer. While their author is unknown they are cited in at least two works as early as the eighth century. Both Cynewulf, an Anglo-Saxon author, and Amalarius, a liturgist and the Archbishop of Trier (d. 850), who was a student of the teacher Alcuin, cite the existence of the 'O Antiphons' as early as the seventh/eighth century.

The 'O Antiphons' get their name from the fact that they all begin with the interjection 'O': O Sapientia (Wisdom); O Adonai (Lord); O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse); O Clavis David (Key of David); O Oriens (Dawn of the East); O Rex Gentium (King of Gentiles); O Emmanuel.

While the original 'O Antiphons' numbered seven, over time a number of others were added to the liturgy of particular regions, and sometimes for particular religious feast days which fell during Advent, or even in the liturgy of some medieval religious orders. Some medieval religious churches had as many as twelve O Antiphons which were sung in the Advent Liturgy leading up to Christmas Eve.

Among these, there was an important Marian 'O Antiphon' which appears in both the Gallican (France) and Sarum (England) liturgies. Although it is difficult to establish just when this antiphon was first introduced, it was certainly known in the Middle Ages.

This Marian Antiphon is still used today in the liturgy of the Norbertine Order. While the Latin Liturgy begins the O Antiphons on the 17th of December with 'O Sapientia,' and ends on the 23rd with 'O Emmanuel,' the Liturgy of the Norbertine Order beings their O Antiphons on the 16th of December with 'O Sapientia,' and ends on the 23rd of December with the beautiful Marian Antiphon 'O Virgo Virginum.'

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem. Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
--Fr. Benedict D. O'Cinnsealaigh, Mount Saint Mary's Seminary of the West, Cincinnati. From the very useful Marian library maintained by the University of Dayton.