In the seven or eight days before Christmas Eve, at an appropriate church service (usually vespers, or evening prayer), the Great Advent Antiphons are traditionally said to introduce the saying (or singing) of the Magnificat. These prayers are variously known as the Great Advent Antiphons, the Great Os, the O Antiphons, the Solemn Antiphons, or the Oleries. They are familiar to many as the source for the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The following seven are usual in the Roman Catholic church:

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

O 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.

O Adonai, et dux domus Israël,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonaï, and Leader of the house of Israel,
who appearedst in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire,
and gavest him the law in Sinai:
Come and deliver us with an outstretchéd arm.

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

O 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.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israël,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit, claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel;
that openest, and no man shutteth, and shuttest, and no man openeth:
Come and bring the prisoner out of the prison-house,
and him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Day-spring, Brightness of Light Everlasting, and Sun of Righteousness:
Come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O King of the Nations, and their desire;
the Corner-stone, who makest both one:
Come and save mankind, whom thou formedst of clay.

O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium, et salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

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

These seven are the greater antiphons, and are said to have been written by Pope Gregory the Great. They certainly date from before 800 AD. It is frequently mentioned that the initial letters (after the 'O') of these antiphons, read backwards, give 'Ero cras' - 'I will be (with you) tomorrow'. This may be intentional, or it may be a coincidence turned into a conceit. The texts on the right are the traditional Sarum rite translations used in the Church of England, and reproduced in the English Hymnal. The Hymnal also offers the following antiphon:

O virgo virginum quomodo fiet?
Istud quia nec primam te similem visa es, nec habebis sequentem.
Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O 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.

This text is found as early as 820, at Metz, where the order was different as well. In the Sarum tradition there are thus eight major antiphons, and they start on December 16; whereas in the Roman tradition, there are seven, starting on December 17. Sarum's usage is recorded in the 'Kalendar' of the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, simply by putting 'O Sapientia' against December 16. This led, in Victorian times and perhaps earlier, to the fanciful idea that there was a St Sapientia, a companion of St Ursula. 'Saint Sapientia' would simply mean 'Holy Wisdom' - the same as Hagia Sophia. But of course, there was never any such person.

In the Roman tradition, 'O virgo virginum' is sometimes used before, and in addition to, 'O Adonaï' on December 18, which is the Feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Exspectatio Partus B M V). This is due in part to the eighth text being abolished by Pope Pius V in the sixteenth century, and then reintroduced in 1725 from a surviving Spanish use. Various breviaries also give complex rules for who should introduce each different antiphon, but these are unnecessarily complicated for this write-up. In addition to all the foregoing material, some medieval breviaries have one or other of the following antiphons set for December 21, the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle. The second of these two is the more common from the 13th century onwards, as St Thomas's Day became a more popular observance:

O Gabriel, nuntius caelorum,
qui clausis ianuis ad me introisti,
et verbum annuntiasti:
concipies et paries Emmanuel vocabitur.

O Gabriel, messenger of the heavens,
who through closed doors hast entered unto me,
and hast announced the word:
'Thou shalt conceive, and bear one called Emmanuel.'

O Thoma Didyme, per Christum quem meruisti tangere,
te precibus rogamus altissonis,
succurre nobis miseris
ne damnemur cum impiis in adventu iudicis

O Thomas Didymus, through Christ whom thou hast deserved to touch,
we ask thee, with prayers resounding on high,
to succor us wretches,
that we be not condemned with the wicked at the coming of the judge.

The following three antiphons were also used additionally during medieval times, and are found in various sources:

O rex pacifice, tu ante saecula nate,
per auream egredere portam
redemptos tuos visita
et eos illuc revoca
unde ruerunt per culpam.

O King of Peace, thou who wast born before the world,
march out through the golden gate,
visit thou thy redeemed ones,
and call them back there,
whence they have fallen by sin.

O mundi domina regio ex semine orta
ex tuo iam Christus processit alvo tamquam sponsus de thalamo
hic iacet in praesepio qui et sidera regit

O Lady of the World, sprung of Royal Race,
now hath Christ come forth from thy womb as a bridegroom from his chamber:
Here lieth he in the crib who ruleth the stars.

O Ierusalem civitas dei summi
leva in circuitu oculos tuos
et vide dominum deum tuum
quia iam veniet solvere te a vinculis.

O Jerusalem, City of the Most High God,
lift up thine eyes round about
and see the Lord thy God,
who is already come to loose thee from thy bonds.

Translations from 'O Gabriel' onwards mine, except for 'O mundi domina', which is quoted in the Church Times 'Out of the Question' column for August 3, 2001, from Green's article (see below). 'O mundi domina' was traditionally used on Christmas Eve itself, and the other antiphons placed earlier in Advent. Some sources say that 'O Gabriel' was used on the feast of the Annunciation, in March. In northern France, the following was used instead of 'O mundi domina':

O beata infantia, per quam nostri generis reparata est vita.
O gratissimi delectabilesque vagitus, per quos eternos ploratus evasimus.
O felices panni, quibus peccatorum sordes extersimus.
O presepe splendidum, in quo non solum jacuit foenum animalium,
sed cibus inventus est Angelorum.

O blessed childhood, by which is made anew the life of our race.
O wailing sweet and loveable, whereby we have escaped everlasting wailings.
O happy swaddling bands, wherewith we have wiped off the soil of sin.
O royal manger, wherein, not only lay the hay of beasts,
but where, too, was found the food of Angels.

The text above is taken from Green's article, where the distribution of this antiphon over northern France and England is attributed to the Norman Archbishop Lanfranc. Green also cites the following, from Liège in Belgium:

O summe artifex, polique Rector siderum altissime;
ad homines descende, sedents in tenebris et umbra mortis.

O great architect, and most high Ruler of the heavens;
come down to men, sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.

The following five antiphons, with translations by Green again, are from modern (that is, post-reformation) French brevaries, and are not, so far as I know, found elsewhere online:

O Sancte Sanctorum, Speculum sine macula
Dei maiestatis et imago bonitatis illius:
Veni, ut deleatur iniquitas, et adducatur iustitia sempiterna.

O Holy of Holies, Mirror without spot
of the majesty of God and image of his goodness:
Come, blot out iniquity, and bring back everlasting justice.

O Pastor Israel, et Dominator in domo David,
cuius egressus ab initio, a diebus aeternitatis:
Veni, ut pascas populum tuum in fortitudine,
et regnes in iustitia et iudicio.

O Shepherd of Israel, and Ruler in the house of David
whose going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity:
Come, and feed thy people in strength,
and reign in justice and judgment.

(First version)
O Bone Pastor, qui requiris et visitas oves:
Veni, et libera eas de omnibus locis in quibus disperae
in die nubis et caliginis.

O Good Shepherd, who seekest and visitest the sheep:
Come, and free them in all placeswhither they were scattered
in the days of cloud and darkness.

(Second version)
O Bone Pastor, visita gregem tuum, require quod periit,
redum quod abiectum, consolida quod infirmum;
ut impositas in humeros oves, in iudicio pascas,
et ad vitae fontes aquarum deducas.

O Good Shepherd, visit thy flock, seek the strayed,
raise up the fallen, strengthen the weak;
and so feed in justice the sheep which thou bearest upon thy shoulders,
and bring them to the fountains of living water.

O Domine, fac mirabilia, cogitationes fideles:
Virgo pariat filium:
mulier conterat caput serpentis:
hoc erit memoriale nominis tui,
cum manus feminae deiecerit eum.

O Lord, work great marvels, thy faithful counsels of old:
let the Virgin bring forth a son:
let the woman bruise the serpent's head:
for this shall be a memorial of thy Name,
when the hand of the woman hath cast him down.


How this article came to be written: I've always liked the Antiphons, ever since first reading them in the family copy of the English Hymnal, and from my earliest days on e2 I've wanted to do them justice. My initial attempt was rather unsatisfactory noding for numbers. Eventually I steeled myself to redo it properly. I remembered having seen a Church Times item in their 'Out of the Question' column (which is like The Guardian's 'Notes and Queries') about 'O Virgo Virginum', which also included the translation of 'O Mundi Domina' given above, and a reference to a definitive article on the subject. I searched the Church Times website at www.churchtimes.co.uk and found the title of the work. 'On the words "O Sapientia" in the Kalendar', by Everard Green FSA, in Volume 49 of Archaeologia. I'd never heard of this thing, so I duly applied for, and gained, membership of King's College London Library, now in Chancery Lane. The staff there were very helpful. Volume 49 of Archaeologia turned out to be a two-part bound volume of journals from 1884. I duly tracked down the section I needed, and had to ask the staff of the library to cut the pages for me - nobody had ever read this copy of the article before. So I copied it, took the copy home, and finished my writeup, some 2 years or so after starting work on it.

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