As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sermon on the O Antiphons

Sunday 16 December 2006 - Third Sunday in Advent


Preacher: The Dean

Zephaniah 3.14–end, Philippians 4.4–7, Luke 3.7–18

O Sapientia

I am going to play a few word games. I love words and the way we use words and often reflect that we do not give adequate attention to the way we use words and their origins and significance in the liturgy. We know they all have purpose and significance so we tend to leave it at that.

I start with a simple illustration. On Friday lunchtime we hosted the annual carol service for Price WaterhouseCoopers. As the congregation left I smiled at a young lady coming down the aisle very clearly pregnant, and asked her if she was planning a Christmas baby. She laughed and said, ‘No, it’s not due until the end of January (you could have fooled me) but several people have suggested I might take a live role in a crib service.’ There is quite a lot of research that shows the clear benefits to relationship for mothers who talk to their babies while they are still in the womb, and the extraordinarily strong effect of music played to babies yet unborn, in fact so strong that Classic FM has published a disc of such music for expectant mothers to use. Hold that thought for a few minutes, we will return to it.

One of the best-known Advent hymns is, ‘O Come O come Emmanuel’. If I were to prepare sermons six weeks in advance rather than six minutes we might have had that hymn this morning, instead you will have to remember it. The seven verses begin, 'O come Emmanuel;

O come thou Wisdom from on high; O come Adonai; O come thou Root of Jesse; O come thou Lord of David’s Key; O come thou Dayspring bright; O come Desire of nations’. You probably know it is based upon the ancient Advent Antiphons, sometimes called the Great ‘O’s of Advent. If you come to evensong any day between December 17th and 23rd you will hear one of them each day.

So lets briefly look at some words first.

Advent – from the Latin verb for ‘come’ – the season when we look for the coming of Christ, the season when John the Baptist is the focus for our gospels pointing towards the coming Christ. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, think of lines in almost every Advent hymn; (NEH) ‘Thou camest, Bridegroom of the bride…’ (1);’So, when thou comest at the last…’(2); ‘Come, thou long expected Jesus…’(3); ‘He that comes despised shall reign…(4)’;’So when next he comes in glory…(5)’; ‘Hark the glad sound the saviour comes…He comes the prisoners to release…He comes the broken heart to bind…(6) ‘He comes in righteousness and love…(7) ‘Come then o saviour and abide…(8)’ ‘ Lo, he comes with clouds descending…(9)’ – one gets the feeling the hymn book editor was trying to make a point.

Antiphon – anti = over against; phon = sound. Antiphon is sound from side to side. That is how the choir sings – from side to side, especially in psalms and canticles, that’s where we get the architectural term ‘choir’ from – the place in the church where the seats are set facing one another so the choir can see and hear one another as they respond to each other; from side to side.

The Advent Antiphons are sung at evensong before the canticle Magnificat. Why are they sung before and after the Magnificat? In St Luke’s gospel, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, my spirit doth rejoice in God my saviour’ is Mary’s song in response to her cousin Elizabeth.

You will remember Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist and he ‘leaps’ in her womb when Mary first speaks to Elizabeth because he recognises Jesus’ presence. Elizabeth exclaims, ‘Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’ and Mary responds with the song we now call Magnificat. It does not take much thought to recognise why the Advent Antiphons are sung before and after Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise to God for the coming birth of the Messiah. The antiphons are her words, her songs to her child. I asked you to hold the notion of mothers addressing their unborn children, of music for the womb, in your mind. Here in the gospel passage we have John the Baptist leaping (very uncomfortable) at the sound of Mary’s voice and Mary singing. Some time before the eighth century this week of antiphons, music from side to side, some say written by Pope Gregory the Great, began to be sung as Mary’s words to her child before Mary’s words of thanks to God for her child. They are intimate, intrinsically personal, profoundly scriptural and gently prophetic.

Then there is this curious little feature. Listen to the opening words in Latin: - ‘O sapientia; O Adonai; O Radix Jesse; O Clavis David; O Oriens; O Rex gentium; O Emmanuel.’

In reverse order the letters after the first ‘O’ spell 'Ero cras' - 'I will be (with you) tomorrow'. This may be intentional, or it may be a coincidence turned into a linguistic conceit, but it is undeniably extraordinary.

Each antiphon is a selection of scriptural texts, several phrases from the Hebrew Scriptures placed alongside one another. Mary’s words to her unborn child are deeply, deeply founded in the tradition from which he, and she, emerge.

Why do I tell all this to you today? Well, today is ‘O sapientia’ the first of the seven days.

It seemed to me there could be no better day to remind you of the depth and breadth of the liturgy. But I tell you for more reason than that.

There is a local reason. There on the south wall above the Sacristy door is a window commemorating Geoffrey Chaucer and his links with this church, links with the Canterbury Pilgrims who set off from here journeying to the shrine of Thomas Becket who had preached here before he fled from London. In the Canterbury Tales the Second Nun’s tale begins with an invocation, a prayer for help, to the Virgin Mary.

‘And thou that art the flower of virgins all.
Of whom St Bernard had such skill to write
To thee, at my beginning first I call’… and on goes the prayer…
‘Within the blissful cloister of thy womb
There took man’s shape the eternal love and peace,
Lord and guide of the trinal circle, whom
The heavens and earth and sea shall never cease
To glorify, pure virgin, the increase
Of whose fair body, never by man mated,
Was the creator of all things created.’

Of whose fair body was the creator of all things created.

It is a translation of Dante’s Bernard’s use of the paradox – worshipping Mary, worshipping Christ. Mary the mother of Jesus, Jesus the Son of God, Word made flesh, creator of all that has life.

Julian of Norwich’s Westminster Manuscript of her ‘Revelations’ begins with a great illuminated ‘O’. It says,

Ure gracious & goode/ lorde god shewed me in/ party the wisdom & the trewthe/ of the soule of oure blessed lady/ saynt mary. Where in I under/stood the reuerent beholdynge/ that she beheld her god that is/ her maker. maruelyng with/ grete reuerence that he wolde/ be borne of her that was a/ simple creature of his makyng. ‘

…‘marvelling with great reverence that he would be born of her that was a simple creature of his making’…

Julian of Norwich and Chaucer understood the meaning of the paradox and of the marvelling, they knew the Advent Antiphons and they recognised in their devotional depth the tender love of a mother for her unborn child, marvelling. That is where we are in this Advent season, at the point of tender love for the unborn child.

When we grasp that then we grasp also the sensitivity of today's scriptures – calling the Philippians to ‘rejoice’… ‘in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving’ – is that not what these great antiphon’s do? Zephaniah’s prophecy says, ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, …rejoice and exult O daughter Jerusalem’ is that not evocative of the exchange between Mary and Elizabeth? We look forwards as the people whom John the Baptist had called looked forwards, ‘with eager expectation’ and, I hope, with humility and awe; in today’s gospel John says, ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.’

On page fourteen of your service books you will find the antiphons (see below). Use them in the next few days and this week. We contemplate Mary contemplating her unborn Son who contemplates her he is Creator of all.

Put yourselves into the mind of Mary and sing the antiphons in your heart as a song to Christ as yet unborn, marvelling that he may be born in all our hearts.

Even so, Come Lord Jesus.


16 December
Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

17 December
Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, who appearedst in the Bush of Moses in a flame of fire, and gavest him the law in Sinai: Come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.

18 December
Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

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

Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest, and no man shuttests, and shuttest, and no man openeth: come and bring the prisoner out of the prison house, and him that sittest in darkness, and the shadow of death.

20 December
Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: venit, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris et umbra mortis.

Day-Spring, Brightness of Light, everlasting and sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness, and the shadow of death.

21 December
aOriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.

aKing of the Nations, and their Desire; the Cornerstone, who makest both one: Come and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay.

22 December

aRex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

23 December

aEmmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

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.

Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

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