Sunday, 19 December 2010

Where the snow-covered Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea

The snow-covered Mountains of Mourne, seen from Red Island, Skerries, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It’s four weeks since I was in Skerries and since I last had a walk on the beach.

In the intervening weeks, the demands of full working weekends, a joint performance of excepts from Handel’s Messiah by the choirs of Christ Church Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and some heavy snow falls have stopped me from getting out onto the shorelines of Fingal.

I was in Portrane and Donabate last weekend for the baptism of my cousin’s baby son – in the same church my grandparents were married in over a century ago. But a working weekend left no time for a walk on the beaches in either place.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and Canon Aisling Shine was the preacher at the Choral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this morning. The setting was Sir Lennox Berkeley’s Missa Brevis, first performed in Westminster Cathedral over 50 years ago in 1960. Berkeley (1903-1989) studied with Stravinsky and Ravel, and his students included John Tavener. The anthem was ‘A spotless rose’ by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), best known to many for his large output of Anglican church music.

There had been a thin fall of snow throughout most of Dublin last night. After the Sung Eucharist two of us, undeterred, headed out to Skerries for lunch and a walk on the beach.

I was last in Skerries on 21 November. Since then, the 70 or 80 trees lining Strand Street and Church Street have been decorated with Christmas lights, the monument has been turned into a beacon of Christmas lighting, and the shops are abuzz with Christmas excitement.

There was a little breeze of snow as we made our way into to the Olive Café on South Strand Street, which was full to the door with customers. Their mixed baskets make ideal Christmas presents, and here they make the best double espresso in Fingal.

Then it was out onto to the South Beach for a brisk walk. The snow was gone again, the tide was out, and there was a beautiful shimmer on the water. Overhead, an air-sea rescue helicopter was practising its manoeuvres.

As we walked up the steps and up around Red Island, the Mountains of Mourne came into view – sweeping down to the sea, they were covered in snow. The harbour was quiet, almost lonely. As we headed back onto the South Beach, a moon that was almost full had risen high, and it seemed the evening light was lingering a little longer than you might expect in the deep mid-winter.

Winter creates a quiet afternoon at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Gerry’s, I picked up the Sunday newspapers and the latest edition of the Skerries News, which gives proper praise to the Skerries Chamber of Commerce for raising the money to light up the town this Christmas.

As we were leaving, snow was falling on Skerries once again. Within hours the town was covered in a blanket of snow, snow on snow, in the bleak mid-winter.

This has been a good and deeply spiritual and meaningful Advent. I’m looking forward to tomorrow evening’s Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in the cathedral; I’m looking forward to the Midnight Eucharist in the cathedral on Christmas Eve; I’m looking forward to celebrating Christmas. But this country is in the grip of an Arctic freeze and after a few weeks of cold and snow, I’m not looking forward to a white Christmas.

19 December: O Radix Jesse


19 December: O Radix Jesse ... “standing as a sign among the people”

Patrick Comerford

The “O Antiphons” are Magnificat antiphons traditionally sung at Evensong or Vespers during the seven days of Advent preceding Christmas Eve, from 17 to 23 December.

Advent is primarily a season of preparation, not of penitence, it is a time of reflection and hope, anticipation and joyful expectation. The canticle Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Sunday Eucharist in Advent, not because of any penitential expectations for this season but, because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds it is held back until Christmas.

Each of the Great “O Antiphons”, beginning with a long, drawn-out “O,” refers to Christ by one of his attributes found in Scripture, calls on him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a rich tapestry of scriptural titles and images that describe his saving work, and ends with a short prayer based on the salutation of the day.

They are:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom);
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord);
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse);
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David);
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring);
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations);
23 December: O Emmanuel (O God is with us)

In the Church of England, these “O Antiphons” have traditionally been used as antiphons before and after the canticle Magnificat at Evensong during this period.

Although they are not printed in the Book of Common Prayer, they have long been part of secondary Anglican sources, including hymns. They have a place in contemporary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including Common Worship (the Church of England).

The popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel, see Irish Church Hymnal, No 135) is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons.

The first letters of the titles taken in reverse order form a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,” which translates as “Tomorrow, I will come,” reflecting the theme of the antiphons.

The origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known, they have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church. They have been known in an early form since the sixth century, by the eighth century they were in use in liturgical celebrations in Rome, and were found in many breviaries between the eighth and 16th centuries.

The memory of the ‘O Antiphons’ was retained after the Reformation in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which listed O Sapientia on 16 December as a black letter holy day from 1604.

The “O Antiphons” were first translated from Latin into English by John Henry Newman.

In medieval Benedictine monasteries, the monks arranged the “O Antiphons” with a definite purpose. If we start with the last title and takes the initial letter of each – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – they form the Latin words ero cras, meaning: “Tomorrow, I will come.”

As only one “O Antiphon” was sung each day, the full text of the acrostic was not revealed until the last day (23 December), when it would be interpreted as Christ’s answer to the prayer at the end of each antiphon.

Although the antiphons and their respective dates shown are recognised throughout most of Western Christianity, an alternative medieval practice arose in England, in the Sarum rite of Salisbury Cathedral, moving all of the antiphons forward by one day, so that they began on 16 December. An additional eighth antiphon, O Virgo virginum (O Virgin of Virgins), was then added on 23 December, so that the acrostic became Vero cras, “truly, tomorrow”:

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.

This version of the “O Antiphons” was used in the Church of England until modern times, and is the version found in traditional Church of England liturgical sources, including the English Hymnal and the New English Hymnal.

More recently, however, the Church of England has stepped back from this medieval practice and returned to the more universal norm. The calendar in Common Worship now provides for the seven-fold version of the “O Antiphons,” and not the eight-fold version.

An updated, inclusive-language version of Newman’s translation of the “O Antiphons” is published in the Franciscan Office Book, Celebrating Common Prayer (p. 347).

Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ, and the “O Antiphons” bring intensity to our Advent preparation, and bring it to a joyful conclusion.

The “O Antiphons” come at the end of Advent to tie together the prophetic hopes of a people who have waited not for just three or four weeks for the coming of the Lord, but for whole centuries.

The “O Antiphons” tell us to be patient just a little while longer, and they describe the wonders in store with the coming of Christ.

Each of the “O Antiphons” has a two-fold purpose. First, each one is a title for the coming messiah. Secondly, each one refers to a prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah.

19 December, O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse):

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


O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the people,
before you kings will shut their mouths
and the nations shall seek:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

c.f. Isaiah 11: 10; 45: 14; 52: 15; Romans 15: 11-12.

Isaiah prophesied:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11: 1).

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious (Isaiah 11: 10).

Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5: 1).

Times and Seasons suggests the following readings may be used at Evening Prayer on this evening: Psalm 50; Isaiah 11: 1-9; Romans 15: 7-13.

Additional reading and resources:

Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel: reflections on music and readings for Advent and Christmas (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).

Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing: Advent to Candlemas (London: SPCK, 2008, Alcuin Liturgy Guides # 5).

William Marshall, O Come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba Press/APCK, 1993).

Times and Seasons (London: Church House Publishing, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute