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Toward the end of the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer, there is a singular entry. It doesn’t commemorate an event, a Holy-day, or a person, but lists “O Sapientia: an ancient Advent anthem.” Why is this anthem worthy of remembrance?

O Sapientia, meaning “O Wisdom,” marks a deepening of Advent as time bends toward the approaching celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is ironic that just when hearts should be opening ever more to anticipation of the Nativity, the ordinary demands of a holiday season distract Christians in so many ways. Gift-giving, visiting, food planning and preparation, financial and emotional stress—all of this serves to pull people away from a focus on the Advent of our Lord and his Incarnation, Christmas itself.

Crīstesmæsse, a Middle English term for Christ’s Mass, referred to the celebration of the Eucharist on the date of Christ’s birth. The familiar hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” sung at this time of year, is an English translation based on O Sapientia.

The ancient anthem itself comes from the O Antiphons, beautiful plainchant texts from the earliest centuries of the Church, when Christendom was a single civilization, undivided into “Greek East” and “Latin West.” The sources of the antiphons, in turn, can be found in verses of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments. In the early sixth century, the first of these “poetic and powerful” O Antiphons was mentioned by Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy.

Beginning at Vespers or Evening Prayer on December 16th, Anglican monastics and devout Anglicans who pray the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer either sing or read an O Antiphon before the Magnificat and after the doxology which follows it. This is a Sarum Rite practice that ends with an eighth O Antiphon on December 23rd, O Virgo virginum. Each antiphon begins with a name of God. In the Latin version, the first letter of each of these names forms a reverse acrostic spelling ero cras, “Tomorrow I will be,” or “I come tomorrow.”

 

O Sapientia:
O Wisdom, Who didst come out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come and teach us the way of prudence.

 

O Adonai:
O Adonai, and Leader of the House of Israel, Who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, and didst give unto him the Law on Sinai: come and with an outstretched arm redeem us.

 

O Radix Jesse:
O Root of Jesse, Who dost stand for an ensign of the people, before Whom kings shall keep silence, and unto Whom the Gentiles shall make their supplication: come to deliver us, and tarry not.

 

 

O SAPIENTIA MOSES

Moses and the Burning Bush, with Moses Removing His Shoes, attr. Dierick Bouts the Elder c. 1465-70. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

O Clavis David:
O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel, Who dost open and no man doth shut, Who dost shut and no man doth open, come and bring forth from his prison-house the captive that sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.

 

O Oriens:
O Dawn of the East, Brightness of the Light Eternal and Sun of Justice, come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

 

O Rex Gentium:
O King of the Gentiles and their Desire, Thou Cornerstone that dost make both one, come and deliver man, whom Thou didst form out of the dust of the earth.

 

O Emmanuel:
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the Nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God.

 

O Virgin of Virgins:
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before you was any like you, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

 

 

With notes from Fr. Ranall Ingalls’ University of King’s College
Chapel newsletter and various sources.

O SAPIENTIA MOSES

The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book), Sandro Botticelli c. 1480-81.