O Adonai

The Lord (Adonai in Hebrew) who made the Covenant with Israel, the Lord who delivered His people in that Covenant, is the Lord of the Creation, or as we say, Christ Jesus. My title this morning is that of the second of the venerable “O Antiphons” — responsories or little hymns of one stanza, each providing a mystical key to the Psalm or Canticle it accompanies — which began yesterday with O Sapientia. They carry us through the last days of Advent, at Vespers in the incomparably beautiful liturgy of old Holy Church: from the 17th to the 23rd of December, and thus to the threshold of Christmastide, in the Vigil of Yule itself. They are attached to the Magnificat — sung just before and just after this most audacious and electrifying of Canticles — and in the old usage of the Middle Ages, the church bells would sound and resound as they were sung.

Each of these antiphons turns on a title for Christ, prefigured in the Old Testament, and they are successively, day by day: O Sapientia (“Wisdom”), O Adonai (“Lord”), O Radix (“Root”), O Clavis (“Key”), O Oriens (“Dawn”), O Rex (“King”), O Emmanuel (“God-with-us”). The seven are knitted together and reprised in the song we still sing as an Advent carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

These O Antiphons are very old, indeed pre-mediaeval, for they are attested going back into what the anti-Christian scholars of the Enlightenment dubbed, “The Dark Ages.” They are mentioned for instance by Boethius in the early VIth century. Variations no doubt existed before that; as also long after in the parallels to the Roman rite, wherein other O Antiphons are added, on the same theme of Christ’s Hebrew titles.

They are sung at Vespers, because Christ was seen to come in the evening hour of the world, and they are sung with the Magnificat because it was by Mary that He came.

In my considered opinion — for I have pulled my hair working at it — these Antiphons must be sung in Latin, because they are untranslatable. To my mind, the best attempts may be found in the Marquess of Bute’s translation of the Roman Breviary (see page 243 of the Winter volume). They can be paraphrased, or elegantly glossed, with patience. As ever, in a problem of translation, the difficulty lies in more than the words, for there is a conceptual matrix that requires the original language for precision. Sometimes this will present small difficulties, sometimes very large.

Tomorrow, for instance, in the antiphon, O Radix Jesse, we are dealing with the tree of Jesse, which we might take for a family tree — which it is, glibly. We are faced with something that gobsmacks the modern reader, right at the start of the First Gospel: “The generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Our modern mind is arrested by the very notion of opening with a genealogical table — with any genealogical table, let alone one for God.

It is good for our modern mind to be astounded, for the beginning of wisdom is quite often a smack upside the head. We may be genuinely enlightened to discover that the old image of this “family tree” had more than a trunk and bare branches. The deep roots sank out of view, themselves branching in the mysterious earth; the foliage above this ground opened to the eye as a banner of revelation.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum — “O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people.” Today we stand, in our shrivelled “nuclear families” (supposing there survives so much as that) without anything much resembling the understanding of “family” shared by our ancestors. And here, for the benefit of the multiculturaloids, let me state that I mean all our ancestors from every culture; for this autochthonic sense of going back, “to Adam” as it were, is universal among pre-moderns.

This is just a blog; one would need a book to expand upon the “false consciousness” that encloses modern man, as he becomes severed from the temporal continuities which attach him not only to people he has met, but to his most distant ancestors, and to his and their most distant descendants. Our world is small, narrow, tight, breathless, and cornered in our rat-like self-esteem. The older one had the opposite of these qualities, and was not so abstract. What you did not know, you did not know; but what you knew led outward in all directions, and through that most acute, and most typically human of senses (as Thomas Aquinas pointed out): not sight, nor hearing, but the sense of touch.

The mortal clay of man was something entirely different to men intimately acquainted with the sources of their food. It was not some disposable raw material; there was no “dirt” in our modern sense, for everything had value. The clay was vividly alive, in the hands of the potter, and they could not be detached from their making. They were not some abstract “body plus a soul,” but integrated; the animated flesh was raised from living mud and ensouled. And body-and-soul would that Christian man be resurrected: as he truly was, and not as a ghost or any other heretical phantom.

Because these Antiphons are short — let me say almost Japanese in their brevity — it is worth praying them in the old Latin, even if gentle reader knows no Latin at all. He may piece them together, a little at a time, from the English prose in his missal, or easily found through a few Internet keystrokes, till he is praying them in Latin. Little by little they will reveal to him an extraordinary picture of the meaning of this Advent — of the many, many dimensions of it, converging in the unfathomable miracle of that first Christmas morning.