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O Antiphons


The seven antiphons that were traditionally sung at the Magnificat in the Divine Office on the seven days before the vigil of Christmas (December 1723), each antiphon beginning with the interjection "O." During this season the liturgical readings and chants, selected chiefly from Isaiah, announce the coming of the Messiah, and the closer the feast of Christmas approaches, the more the liturgy accentuates its call to the Savior with the cry "Come!" (Veni ). During the Middle Ages the O antiphons enjoyed great popularity. Intonation was assigned in succession to the dignitaries of the monastery or cathedral chapter. Thus the first antiphon, O Sapientia, was intoned by the abbot; the next day, O Adonai, by the prior; O Clavis David, by the cellarer, and so on. The largest bell was rung throughout the singing of the O antiphon and its Magnificat.

Textual Structure and Sources. The O antiphons are all constructed on a plan similar to that of orations: first an invocation to the Messiah with a title inspired by the Old Testament (e.g., "O Emmanuel"); then an amplification stating an attribute of the Messiah and developing the invocation ("our King and our Law-giver, the one awaited by the nations, their savior"); finally, an appeal commencing always with "Come" and referring to the initial invocation ("Come to redeem us, Lord, our God"). Their sources may be either of scriptural origin or of ecclesiastical composition, the latter being a free manner of juxtaposing scriptural texts from different sources. (1) The texts of the O antiphons are virtually a mosaic of borrowings from the Prophetic and the Sapiential books: O Sapientia (Eccl 24.5); O Adonai (Ex 6.13); O Radix Jesse (Is 11.10); O Claris David (Rv 3.7; cf. Is 22.22); O Oriens (Zec 6.12); O Rex Gentium (Hg 2.8); O Emmanuel (Is 7.14; 8.8). These terms from the Old Testament were very early applied to Christ. Four of them (Sapientia, Rex, Emmanuel, Radix) were already employed by Pope St. Damasus (366384) in his Carmen de cognomentis Salvatoris (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne 103:378). None of the seven invocations, however, can be found in the De nominibus Christi of the Gelasian Decretal (s), sometimes attributed to the same pope [cf. Dobschütz, (Texte und Untersuchungen 38 1912) fasc. 4:3]. The term Clavis David is applied to Christ by St. Ambrose (De institut. virg. 9.62, Patrologia Latina 16:321); it was repeated in the Pontificale romanum in the admonition Accipe virgam virtutis for the consecration of a king. (2) Non-scriptural words are few and are used to link the terms borrowed from Scripture. The two pleas Veni ad salvandum nos (from O Emmanuel ) and Veni ad liberandum nos (from O Radix ) do not seem to be of scriptural origin. The second appears to be taken from a Responsorium breve of the Advent liturgy and is a very ancient text, since this appeal for liberation is found in the same words in the mozarabic antiphonary of Leon and is repeated at the beginning of an oration of the Mozarabic sacramentary (ed. M. Ferotin, col. 162, line 30).

Number and Origin. In inverse order the initials of each invocation (S apientia, A donai, R adix, C lavis, O riens, R ex, E mmanuel) constitute the acrostic ERO CRAS. This is interpreted as the response of Christ to the faithful who have called upon Him during the week: "Tomorrow I shall be there." From this acrostic we can draw two conclusions: (1) The primitive order of the antiphons was the same as that preserved today in the Roman Breviary, rather than that indicated by Amalarius (De ordine antiphonarii, ed. Hanssens, Studi e Testi 140:46) or that found in the Ambrosian antiphonary or in many Gregorian MSS. (2) The original number of the antiphons was seven. Other antiphons modeled on these seven (such as O Thomas Didyme or O Virgo virginum ) are not by the same author. They do not enter into the framework of the acrostic; and, above all, they are not addressed to the Messiah. O Thomas Didyme was composed for the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle (December 21), always celebrated during the period when the O antiphons are sung. O Virgo virginum, in honor of the Virgin Mary, is probably earlier, having been cited by Amalarius, and was sometimes sung on the vigil of Christmas. Amalarius attributes

the composition of the O antiphons to some anonymous "cantor" (De or. antiphonarii, ch. 13, ed. Hanssens, Studi e Testi 140:44), who probably lived in the eighth century, perhaps even in the seventh. All are adapted to the same melodic theme in the 2d mode. The Magnificat that follows is sung in the solemn tone as on great feasts. Both text and melody were probably composed by one and the same author.

Bibliography: c. callewaert, "De groote Adventsantifonen O" in his Sacris erudiri (Steenbrugge 1940). w. j. mcgarry, He Cometh (New York 1941). "Les Grandes Antiennes," Revue Bénedictine 2 (188586) 512516. w. apel, Gregorian Chant (Bloomington IN 1958) 400.

[m. huglo]

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