Monday, 17 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (18): 17 December, ‘O Sapientia’ and Saint Elizabeth

The Visitation ... a panel from the 19th century Oberammergau altarpiece in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

In the calendar of Common Worship of the Church of England, today [17 December] is marked with a simple Latin phrase in bold italics typeface: O Sapientia. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, this title appears in the calendar for 16 December, without explanation.

For some readers this simple phrase may seem cryptic. But it is a reminder that today marks the beginning of the O Antiphons, the seven jewels of Advent liturgy, dating back to the fourth century, one for each day from today until Christmas Eve. They are addressed to God, calling for him to come as teacher and deliverer, with a tapestry of scriptural titles and pictures that describe his saving work in Christ.

The seven majestic Messianic titles for Christ are based on the Old Testament prophecies, and they help the Church to recall the variety of the ills of humanity before the coming of the Redeemer as each antiphon in turn pleads with mounting impatience for Christ to save his people.

The order of the antiphons climbs climatically through the history of Redemption:

1, In the first, O Sapientia, we take a backward flight into the recesses of eternity to address Wisdom, the Word of God.

2, In the second, O Adonai, we leap from eternity to the time of Moses and the Law of Moses.

3, In the third, O Radix Jesse, we come to the time when God is preparing the family of David.

4, In the fourth, O Clavis David, we are with the psalmist himself.

5, In the fifth, O Oriens, we see that the family of David is elevated so that the peoples may look on a rising star in the east.

6, In the sixth, O Rex Gentium, we know that Christ is the king of all the peoples.

7, With the seventh and last Great O, O Emmanuel, God-with-us, we have arrived at what Bishop Phillips Brooks calls the ‘Little Town of Bethlehem.’

The initial letters of each Messianic title in reverse order – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – spell out the Latin words Ero Cras, “Tomorrow, I will come.”

Today’s opening ‘O Antiphon’ declares:

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


In Common Worship, this is translated as:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.


The antiphon draws from a number of Biblical sources, including Isaiah, Wisdom Ecclesiastes and Sirach.

In England, according to Sarum Use, the Great ‘O Antiphons’ began on 16 December with an eighth antiphon, O Virgo virginum (‘O Virgin of Virgins’), sung on 23 December, and O Sapientia was retained as a curious entry without explanation, in the December liturgical calendar of The Book of Common Prayer.

How did this come about?

Well, in 1561 a number of saints from the Roman were brought back into the calendar of the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer by way of the Latin Book of Common Prayer which was in use in Cambridge and Oxford college chapels – places where Latin was expected to be “a tongue understanded of the people.” Indeed, the Ordinal expected bishops before the ordination of bishops, priests or deacons, to examine the candidates and to proceed only after finding them “learned in the Latine Tongue.”

Along with these restored entries came this one entry that was not the name of a saint or martyr. It continued to be included in the calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Book, which became the liturgical norm throughout the Anglican Communion.

The Roman Catholic tradition has retained these antiphons as well. However, their course begins on 17 December – which implies that until the publication of Common Worship, the Anglican tradition retained an antiphon no longer used by Rome. And this missing antiphon is the one addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Common Worship Calendar has since adopted the more widely used form.

The Advent carol O come, O come, Emmanuel (Irish Church Hymnal, No 135; New English Hymnal, No 11) is a popular reworking of the seven O Antiphons.

The ‘O Antiphons’ or refrains were sung before and after the canticle Magnificat at Evensong Vespers on the seven days before Christmas Eve (17 to 23 December).

The canticle Magnificat is the great prayer of the Virgin Mary in Luke 1:46-55 when she visits her cousin, Saint Elizabeth. In this way, we are reminded that the Saviour we are expecting is to come to us through the Virgin Mary. The ‘O Antiphons’ are sung twice, once before and once after the canticle to show their great solemnity.

Yesterday, as I discussed Gaudete Sunday, I recalled the place of Saint John the Baptist in our Advent reflections. As we think of the O Sapientia antiphon and the Virgin Mary and Saint Elizabeth through the canticle Magnificat, it is worth concluding this Advent meditation by recalling Saint Elizabeth, the mother of Saint John the Baptist and the wife of Zachariah.

As Saint Elizabeth’s feastday on 5 November does not appear in either the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship, it is appropriate today to remind ourselves of the story and words of Saint Elizabeth as she anticipates the birth of the Christ Child:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spririt and exclaimed out with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed: for there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’ (Luke 1: 41-45).

Tomorrow (18 December): Saint Flannan of Killaloe.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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