Some years ago on the Medieval Religion discussion group there were a series of posts on the Great Os - the antiphons to the Magnificat sung at Vespers from December 17th to 23rd. In 2011 I thought I would recycle them on this blog with a bit of editing and a few additions on my own part, and this year I am re-posting them.
The commentaries were originally written by Fr Bill East and posted in 1998, and reposted by Tim Henderson in 2000. In addition I have drawn on a post from Fr Thomas Sullivan OSB of Conception Abbey in Missouri about the monastic practice of singing the Great O's. Today there is an introduction, and then each day there will be an exposition of the antiphon.
Oliver Treanor's Seven Bells to Bethlehem is an excellent Advent book based on reflections on the themes of the O Antiphons.
Most people first become aware of the O Antiphons with the hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel. The antiphons themselves are more ancient in origin and date back to at least the ninth century. The hymn itself was composed in the 12th century in French and the Latin version of the hymn was first published at Cologne in 1710. It was translated by J.M.Neale in to English in the mid-nineteenth century and with a setting adapted by Thomas Helmore from a fifteenth century processional.
According to Fr William Saunders as quoted in the illustrated Wikipedia article, which can be viewed here:
"The exact origin of the "O Antiphons" is not known. Boethius (480–524/5) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they were in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the "O Antiphons" was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases "Keep your O" and "The Great O Antiphons" were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the "O Antiphons" have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church.
The Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one - Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia—the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, "Tomorrow, I will come". Therefore Jesus, whose coming Christians have prepared for in Advent and whom they have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to them: "Tomorrow, I will come." So the "O Antiphons" not only bring intensity to their Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion."
The notes in my copy of the St Andrew's Missal stress the mounting sense of expectancy through Advent leading to the heartfelt intercessions of these antiphons and says that Honorius of Autun (d. circa 1151) likened the seven O Antiphons to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, with which Christ was filled.
The Sarum Office started using the antiphons a day earlier on December 16th and concluded with an eighth antiphon, O Virgo Virginum on December 23rd. This was revived by the liturgists of the Oxford Movement and I will post that in addition on December 23rd. I do not know why this change occurred - I wonder, but do not know, if it could be with a system of saying anticipated Vespers, so there was an extra one on the 23rd that needed an antiphon of its own. With this the acrostic becomes vero cras : "Truly, tomorrow."
Writing of monastic practice Fr Sullivan writes:
"In parts of Germany, for example, it was the custom to illuminate the antiphon for the day very beautifully on a separate piece of parchment and to expose it to view upon the great lectern in the centre of the choir, as we do with the Christmas book here at Conception. In most churches, provision was made for the special ringing of bells at Vespers on these days: they were rung as if on a feastday or the heaviest bell was used. We at Conception ring a bell all through the Magnificat. Sometimes the antiphon was doubled, that is, sung after each verse or couplet.
But the most interesting of all observances for the great antiphons were the pomp and circumstance which almost everywhere and especially in the monasteries, were attached to the intoning of them. The intoning of antiphons on feast days was always reserved to the abbot or other dignitaries of the chapter and this was particularly true of the O Antiphons. The right of intoning one of the O Antiphons was jealously limited by immemorial custom to certain higher officers in the community and each of these great functionaries had his own appropriate antiphon. In most monasteries, the antiphon O Sapientia (O Wisdom) was reserved to the Abbot and O Adonai to the Prior. Some antiphons were entoned by the obedientiary or functionary most closely associated with the theme of the antiphon: O Radix Jesse was reserved to the gardener, O Clavis David to the cellarer whose duty it was to keep things under lock and key, and O Rex Gentium to the infirmarian, since the antiphon contained the clause, "Come and save (or heal) man whom you have formed out of clay." At Conception, the dean of studies or the librarian sometimes presented the Christmas book to the Abbot for entoning "O Sapientia" and the groundskeeper for the antiphon "O Radix Jesse."
The letter O simply tells us that we're talking to someone. but O also reminds us of much more. It makes us think of something having no beginning or end. It resembles the shape of our mouth and the sound we make when we face a mystery we cannot fully comprehend."