17 December 2015

Ruminating upon 'O Sapientia'

O Sapientia
16 December - Sarum
17 December - Roman

Antiphon "O Sapientia" / "O Wisdom" (Sirach 24) • Salisbury Cathedral, England

The Great O Antiphons begin for the modern Roman Church on the 17th December and are seven in number. A solid claim is made that these chants were first written in the 8th or 7th centuries taking titles from the Prophecy of Isaiah, other prophets, and Wisdom Literature and applying them to the Lord Jesus in anticipation of his birth.  These antiphons are sung with the Magnificat at Vespers which makes the Great O Antiphons a deeply Marian reflexion upon the  Lord's Advent and birth.

The tradition found in northern Europe is rather different, and modern folk like to belittle mediaeval textual evidence as unworthy intrusions into that vast august purity of the original forms ...  since of course we were all there to know exactly what that original was -- so by all means, ad fontes!  *cough*

Dear Reader, you may have surmised that my sympathies are with the Sarum tradition as part of the organic development of the liturgy ... or perhaps a more ancient memory of something we can no longer find in our limited texts of the past.  The Sarum number of antiphons is eight, and they begin on the 16th of December.  

For most Roman Catholics today, if the tradition isn't 20th c. Roman, then it isn't.  But that is not the way the Church in the West has been for most of her life.
One example of note: the custom was until recently that the O Antiphons were sung thrice. The antiphon would be sung prior to the Magnificat.  Then the same antiphon would be sung at the end of the Magnificat but before Gloria Patri, and then the antiphon would be sung again after the Gloria Patri for the third time.  I believe somewhere Dom Prosper Guéranger wrote of this trinitarian method and its relevance to the Great O Antiphons.

We should be mindful that with regard to the Eight O Antiphons of the Sarum Use the textual evidence is to be found throughout northern Europe all the way down to Switzerland.  This 8 O Antiphon custom was widely established and may have been the dominant pattern rather than the Roman method circa the Council of Trent.  (It is sad to see a book like the Church of England's Common Worship abandon something native and integral to worship in the British Isles and elsewhere and instead to suddenly go ultramontane and abandon the 8th Antiphon and start the O Antiphons on the 17th of December like any Roman Catholic.)

The first 7 antiphons are addressed to Christ with Isaiah, other Hebrew prophets and the Wisdom Literature as the wellspring for the pattern of titles and texts.  But the 8th antiphon concerning Our Lady ("O Virgo virginum") also has its heart in Isaiah and makes a textual connexion to that remarkable text "O Magnum Mysterium" (wherein we find a mystery of textual traditions regarding Habbakuk as partial source for the text and its variant forms).

Among the mediaeval texts we find some communities with 12 antiphons so that the sacred number be achieved with its reference to the 12 Tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles.  In Paris, at one point, there were nine antiphons.  The Marian character of the O Antiphons is consistent in every case as they clothe the singing of the Magnificat, Our Lady's Canticle.  The 7 Antiphons directed to Christ find their completion with the 8th directed to the Mother but also about her Son more than herself ... her Son  the 'mysterium' in Himself.  

Also in the 8 Antiphons is a mystical catechesis upon the Days of Creation.  As God made Adam and from Adam made Eve, so here God recreates the Days of Creation ... instead of man made first and then woman, we see God creates Woman first (Fiat Maria!) and then makes the Man from Her, even Jesus from Mary gaining his full humanity through her.  AND through this most sacred reversal of order and the setting out of Divine Recreation of Mankind,  the Creation is healed in a way that can only be called mysterion and sacrament, as we find in the textual variations of "O Magnum Mysterium".

(To underline ever so gently my theme, I note that "O Virgo virginum" still appears in the Graduale of the Premonstratensian Order, and I believe is still sung in some if not all of the Orders monasteries.  For this reason among others, I cherish my copies of all things Premonstratensian.)

Ah! But I am not even touching upon the most important matter to me which is the rich legacy of God Incarnate as both Word and Wisdom of God.  For now I will focus in a bit on the Roman Church's title for St. Mary as Sedes Sapientiae, the Seat of Wisdom.  But, dear Reader, there is so much more that has been set aside or overlooked which beholds Lady Wisdom not as divine, not as an expression of Jesus' identity, but rather Lady Wisdom is hymned as the very first creature of Creation who when the fulness of time arrived– would become Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of God the Wisdom in the flesh.  

I am thinking especially of a French mystical poet of the last century whose most extraordinary Marian work remains untranslated or at least unavailable at the present time.  Not unlike Thomas Traherne, this poet enters into ecstasies of contemplation of the Blessed Mother and especially of her as Lady Wisdom.  (How the 'people of God' filled with the spirit of Vatican II would turn apoplectic over that...) What wondrous depths there are in the mystical experiences of the laity! (that are such a threat to the minions of bureaucracies wherever there is a cathedral).

Salvation does not depend upon such things as the number of antiphons or the dates when one must chant them, dear Reader, but it is my duty as perhaps one of the last of the Sarum-loving liturgical dinosaurs to do my part and 'splain it plain

In short, if you are on the side of the Child Jesus, St. Joseph of Arimathea, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Anne, and the Thorn Tree, then you know that there are 8 antiphons to be sung, and we began with O Sapientia on 16 December.  

If you are of those who see the world as having begun with twentieth century scholarship and Vatican II or if you see the world through the Council of Trent, then the O Antiphons began today, the 17th of December.  

Dominicans chanting O Sapientia for 17 December

Of course, be well-behaved and observe the custom of the house in which you reside, dear children, but in your own chambers you are Lord or Lady of your castle and its chapel ... and you may light your Advent Wreath and chant your Magnificat with 8 Antiphons for the love of Our Lord and Our Lady, and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

O Sapientia by Howard Skempton · Benjamin Nicholas · Choir of Merton College, Oxford

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).  Poems.  1918.

37. The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

WILD air, world-mothering air,   
Nestling me everywhere,  

That each eyelash or hair  

Girdles; goes home betwixt   

The fleeciest, frailest-flixed            5

Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed   

With, riddles, and is rife   

In every least thing’s life;   

This needful, never spent,   

And nursing element;            10

My more than meat and drink,   

My meal at every wink;   

This air, which, by life’s law,   

My lung must draw and draw   

Now but to breathe its praise,            15

Minds me in many ways   

Of her who not only   

Gave God’s infinity   

Dwindled to infancy   

Welcome in womb and breast,            20

Birth, milk, and all the rest   

But mothers each new grace   

That does now reach our race—   

Mary Immaculate,   

Merely a woman, yet            25

Whose presence, power is   

Great as no goddess’s   

Was deemèd, dreamèd; who   

This one work has to do—   

Let all God’s glory through,            30

God’s glory which would go   

Through her and from her flow   

Off, and no way but so.   

    I say that we are wound   

With mercy round and round            35

As if with air: the same   

Is Mary, more by name.   

She, wild web, wondrous robe,   

Mantles the guilty globe,   

Since God has let dispense            40

Her prayers his providence:   

Nay, more than almoner,   

The sweet alms’ self is her   

And men are meant to share   

Her life as life does air.            45

    If I have understood,   

She holds high motherhood   

Towards all our ghostly good   

And plays in grace her part   

About man’s beating heart,            50

Laying, like air’s fine flood,   

The deathdance in his blood;   

Yet no part but what will   

Be Christ our Saviour still.   

Of her flesh he took flesh:            55

He does take fresh and fresh,   

Though much the mystery how,   

Not flesh but spirit now   

And makes, O marvellous!   

New Nazareths in us,            60

Where she shall yet conceive   

Him, morning, noon, and eve;   

New Bethlems, and he born   

There, evening, noon, and morn—   

Bethlem or Nazareth,            65

Men here may draw like breath   

More Christ and baffle death;   

Who, born so, comes to be   

New self and nobler me   

In each one and each one            70

More makes, when all is done,   

Both God’s and Mary’s Son.   

    Again, look overhead   

How air is azurèd;   

O how! nay do but stand            75

Where you can lift your hand   

Skywards: rich, rich it laps   

Round the four fingergaps.   

Yet such a sapphire-shot,   

Charged, steepèd sky will not            80

Stain light. Yea, mark you this:   

It does no prejudice.   

The glass-blue days are those   

When every colour glows,   

Each shape and shadow shows.            85

Blue be it: this blue heaven   

The seven or seven times seven   

Hued sunbeam will transmit   

Perfect, not alter it.   

Or if there does some soft,            90

On things aloof, aloft,   

Bloom breathe, that one breath more   

Earth is the fairer for.   

Whereas did air not make   

This bath of blue and slake            95

His fire, the sun would shake,   

A blear and blinding ball   

With blackness bound, and all   

The thick stars round him roll   

Flashing like flecks of coal,            100

Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,   

In grimy vasty vault.   

    So God was god of old:   

A mother came to mould   

Those limbs like ours which are            105

What must make our daystar   

Much dearer to mankind;   

Whose glory bare would blind   

Or less would win man’s mind.   

Through her we may see him            110

Made sweeter, not made dim,   

And her hand leaves his light   

Sifted to suit our sight.   

    Be thou then, O thou dear   

Mother, my atmosphere;            115

My happier world, wherein   

To wend and meet no sin;   

Above me, round me lie   

Fronting my froward eye   

With sweet and scarless sky;            120

Stir in my ears, speak there   

Of God’s love, O live air,   

Of patience, penance, prayer:   

World-mothering air, air wild,   

Wound with thee, in thee isled,            125

Fold home, fast fold thy child.

NOTES: ‘Mary Mother of Divine Grace Compared to the Air we Breathe. Stonyhurst, May ’83.’ Autograph in A.—Text and title from later autograph in B. Taken by Dean Beeching into ‘A Book of Christmas Verse’ 1895 and thence, incorrectly, by Orby Shipley in ‘Carmina Mariana’. Stated in a letter to R. W. D. June 25, ’83, to have been written to ‘hang up among the verse compositions in the tongues.... I did a piece in the same metre as Blue in the mists all day.’ Note Chaucer’s account of the physical properties of the air, ‘House of Fame’, ii. 256, seq.

Salve Sedes Sapientiae by Matthew Martin · Benjamin Nicholas · Choir of Merton College, Oxford

From Arvo Pärt's Sieben Magnificat - Antiphonen for Choir (1991): 
I. O Weisheit (O Sapientia/O Wisdom) •  Jauna Muzika Choir, Vaclovas Augustinas

O Adonai
17 December - Sarum
18 December - Roman

Live recording from Advent Carols and Lessons (2002) • 
Vancouver's Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Rupert Lang, director

Healey Willan's 1957 setting of  "The Great O Antiphons of Advent" —once beloved by Anglicans and Lutherans alike— are available as sheet music from Concordia by clicking here.