Gloria in Excelsis Deo! A reflection on the 'O' Antiphons
by Sr Tamsin Mary o.p.
As you may have noticed the focus of this year’s Advent talks has been the Blessed Virgin Mary – in her Conception, in the Annunciation, in the Visitation, and now finally in the Nativity. As this last is a very large topic, I have decided to focus upon the ‘O Antiphons’ as a starting point for reflection upon the birth of Christ and Mary’s role therein. At this time of year these seven antiphons are used as the Alleluia versicle, but also in the Divine Office we sing the seven antiphons at Vespers in conjunction with the Magnificat – thus a link to our Lady is intrinsic to their position in the liturgy.
The O Antiphons date back at last as far as the sixth century. The version that has come down to us has the different antiphons arranged in a reverse acrostic – the initial letters spelling out ‘Ero cras – tomorrow I shall be’. Some authors have argued this is a mere co-incidence, but I think this is to take scepticism a little far. The very fact that the number and arrangement of the antiphons varies from place to place would seem to me to place the idea of a coincidence here beyond the bounds of normal narrow-mindedness into the pathological.
Each O antiphon begins with a title of the Messiah, and each refers to some Old Testament text prophesying the coming of the Messiah. So let us look at each in turn – at the prophecy it is linked to, what it tells us of Our Lady’s role in the Nativity, and what therefore is the good news we should be reflecting on in relation to each one.
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.
This echoes what we read in Sirach (8.1) ‘Wisdom reaches from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things’. Wisdom in the Old Testament is a personification of God, working with Him and from Him, begotten by Him from before all ages, proceeding from His mouth. Here this title is taken for Christ in His Incarnation.
Our Lady in the Litany of Loretto is called ‘Virgin most prudent’ and ‘Seat of Wisdom’ Christ is Wisdom Itself, she is His throne. From this we are to understand that the Incarnation is for us the source of the wisdom that leaps down from on High. Like Our Lady we are to receive Him in our hearts, and be teachable – docile to His formation, become, with our Lady the throne upon which He alights.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
Here the Name given to Our Lord, Adonai, is the name pronounced by the Jews when the name of God YHWH [the Tetragrmmaton], too Holy to be uttered, appears in the text of Scripture, and we are referred to the theophanies, the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush, and at Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments. Thus it is spelt out even more explicitly that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament, the Lawgiver, and none-the less our Redeemer come in the flesh. In the litany of Loretto Mary is called ‘Mother of our Creator, Mother of Our Saviour.’ The Child born of the Virgin is to be our Saviour, and is our Creator and God. Perhaps here we should reflect upon the awesomeness of our salvation in Christ, that it is God Himself who is coming to save us. We should also remember the perpetual Virginity of Our Lady: Just as the Bush was alight, but not consumed, so also Mary’s giving birth to Our Lord was not, as some modern theologians and film-makers would have it, a birth like any other. Rather, like his conception, His birth, according to the constant tradition of the Church left Mary a Virgin - before during and afterwards, she was spared the pangs of childbirth but suffered later the greater agony of participation in her Son’s passion and death on the Cross on Calvary. In spite of her very great closeness to the Passion of Our Lord, Mary shed no blood for the redemption of the world: “You were not redeemed with corruptible things…but with the precious blood of Christ as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled” The mediaeval image has it that Jesus passed through her body like light through glass.
In this dual privilege as Mother and Virgin, Mary is not set before women as the impossible model which none can follow. Rather she is set before all Christians as an icon which all must strive to image in their lives - All must be chaste, have a right relation to others in the language of the body, always respecting the other as the temple of the Holy Spirit and never treating the other as object, and all must be fruitful - bring forth fruits worthy of salvation.
O Radix Jesse
Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Here what is emphasised in the Messianic title is Jesus’ physical relationship with mankind, through a particular family – the royal house of Israel. The reference is to Isaiah, where we read: "A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." (Isaiah 11:1)
And again: "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, from whose house and lineage the prophet Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would come and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). [Also compare Isaiah 45:14, Isaiah 52:15 and Romans 15:12.] Mary too is set firmly within this family and lineage, as we find in the litany of Loreto where she is called: ‘Tower of David,’ while in the Litany of the Holy name of Mary we find her called: ‘Mary, flower of Jesse, Mary, issue of kings’
We might ask ourselves why Jesus was born of a royal family, rather than a more humble one. I think there are several things to be considered here. Firstly there is a sign value in Jesus being really of a royal house – the House of the promised Messiah, the house that God promised He would build. It is as an earthly as well as a Heavenly King that He comes to save us. Secondly, neatly, the dual appearance – born of the Royal house of David, but born so abjectly poor that he lacks even the basics of home and hearth, shows the universality of redemption. Christ figures in Himself the One to whom all the nations come, to Whom all will pray – There is no-one so powerful that they do not need Him, none so abjectly poor that He cannot reach them. Similarly Mary is at once Queen and Mother – We owe her the honour of a Queen, and more than a Queen, and we can fly to her with our smallest woes.
O Clavis David
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
We find this in the prophet Isaiah:"I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open."(Isaiah 22:22) which is re-echoed also in the Book of Revelation: ‘And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.’ (Rev.3.7) Later in Isaiah we read the prophecy "I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thy hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house."(Isaiah 42:6-7), a text which Our Lord refers to Himself when He replies to John the Baptist’s question whether He is ‘The One Who is to come’: ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.’(Luke 7.22) Mary in the Litany of Loreto is called ‘Gate of Heaven.’ She is the Gate, but it is He Who opens the Way.
We are so accustomed to the state of living in the fear of death that we barely notice it as a prison-house except occasionally. The Nativity is the means by which we are to be released from our bondage to sin and death, since the gate of heaven is now open and accessible to us. As an English Catholic I have imbibed or inherited some Protestant resistance to the role of Mary in Our Salvation- time now to reflect then upon her as the point of access by which God chose to incarnate His entry into our dark and fallen world, so that we might enter Heaven.
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
In Isaiah we find:"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." (Isaiah 9:2) and, later on: ‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.’ (Isaiah 60:1-2) and in Malachi ‘Unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.’ (Malachi 4:2). In Luke this theme of the Saviour as the true bringer of light is revisited: Zechariah prophesies of Him in the Benedictus : ‘the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death’ while Simeon is later to greet Him as’ A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2.32), all of which leads on to the prologue of John in which Christ is ‘the True Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world’ Mary also is seen as a source of light – In Catholic tradition she is identified with The ‘Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.(Rev. 12.1), and in the litany of Loreto she is called ‘Morning star’ Christ then is the rising Sun,she the woman clothed with the sun.
The promised Messiah under this image comes not only to relieve us of the prison-house of the shadow of death, but to enlighten us and free us from the darkness of sin. This fits in with the anti-Manichean idea that the power of sin is an entirely negative power, depending on an absence or disorder in created good, rather in an independent entity. As soon as the rising Sun comes to visit us, righteousness flourishes and the dark night of sin is driven away.
O Rex Gentium
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
Here we find an interesting juxtaposition: God as King of the nations, as we find Him in the Old Testament is to be feared: ‘There is none like You, O LORD; You are great, and great is Your name in might. Who would not fear You, O King of the Nations? (Jer.10.6-7) and yet this King Who is to be feared by the Gentiles is also ‘the desired of nations’ that the prophet Haggai says will ‘come and fill this house(the Temple) with glory.’(cf. Hag 2:7). In Ephesians St Paul explores the effect of this transformed role: ‘But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been builtonthe foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner-stone’( Eph 2: 14-20); The raw clay of the Genesis story becomes a building of living bricks depending on Christ Who unifies Gentiles and Jews in one Building, His Mystical Body. Mary likewise is Queen of the Old Testament – Queen of Patriarchs, Queen of Prophets, and Queen of the New Covenant – of virgins, martyrs and all saints. Topically of late the Vatican caused a storm amongst the illiterati in a rather nuanced reiteration of the Church’s position in relation to the Jewish people which stated that while we have no ‘institutional Mission to the Jews’, it is still the duty of Christians to ‘.to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner, acknowledging that Jews are bearers of God’s Word, and particularly in view of the great tragedy of the Shoah....Jesus, ....calls his Church from both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph 2:11¬22) on the basis of faith in Christ and by means of baptism, through which there is incorporation into his Body which is the Church Comission for Religious Relations with the Jews’(“The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable’ (Rom 11:29) ) Whether this is the best or final word on the subject, it should at least advert us to the on-going scandal of our poor relationship with the Nation that brought forth a Saviour for us. The Incarnation, the fact that Jesus was ‘born of a woman, born a subject to the Law’(Gal 4.4) should inspire us to reach out in love to the people of Israel.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Isaiah had prophesied ‘Behold, a maiden shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.’ (Isaiah 7:14) Later he adds that the Child Who is to be born shall be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6) and that: ‘the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us.’(Isa 33: 22). This coming King is the one Who "shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;’ ushering in the reign of peace in which ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:4)
Our Lady in the litany of Loreto is addressed as ‘Queen conceived without original sin, Queen assumed into heaven, Queen of peace’ Here her role as the primary recipient of redemption, both in her Conception and in her Assumption plays out the promise implicit in the title ‘Emmanuel – God with us.’ The final O antiphon draws together the various themes of the whole cycle- God, made flesh, the fulfilment of the prophesies of the Messiah, Our King, and our Redeemer, the hope of the nations whose presence with us allows all people of goodwill to sing with the Angels: ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo.’