The die-hard liturgy fans out there may already know about this, but others of you may glance at the ACNA calendar this week and mumble in broken Latin “O Sapientia?”  It means “O Wisdom” and it refers to a traditional antiphon that was paired with the Magnificat in Vespers (Evening Prayer).

Let’s back up.

In the final week leading up to Christmas, pre-reformation liturgical tradition spruced up each Evening Prayer service with a different antiphon, meditating on a different aspect of Christ.  Because each of them begin with the expressive word “O”, they’re known as “The O Antiphons.”  How does an antiphon work?  Traditionally they are placed at the beginning of a Psalm or Canticle and repeated at the end, after the “Glory be”.  So the first one, O Sapientia, would work like this:

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.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For he has regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

He, remembering his mercy, has helped his servant Israel,
as he promised to our fathers, Abraham and his seed forever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

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.

Each day, at Evening Prayer, this Antiphon would be different, in the final lead-up to Christmas.  For most of Europe there were seven such antiphons:

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O God-with-us)

In England, an eighth was added at the end, moving all the other seven forward a day: O Virgo Virginum (O Virgin of Virgins).

As the discerning reader might now recognize, the classic seven of these comprise the seven verses of O come, O come Emmanuel that we have in our hymnals.  The order is not the same, however, and with good reason: the culmination of these pictures of Jesus is Emmanuel; that is the most profound and clear of all the prophetic images of Christ.  These antiphons, thus, form a progression of growing clarity in our Advent anticipation: we await our Wisdom, our Lord, the Root (or stump) of Jesse, the Key of David, the Dayspring (or Morning Star), the King of the Gentiles, God-himself-with-us!

The medieval English addition of the Marian observance, O Virgo Virginum admittedly interrupts this progression, though its content is just as biblical and pious as the other seven.  I adapted it to verse a couple years ago, for those who care to add it to the hymn.

If you have found Advent to be passing you by, perhaps you can latch on to this final week before Christmas.  These O Antiphons are the stuff of excellent Bible Study, meditation, reflection, prayer, and worship.

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