Mary's Antiphon for Christmas: O Virgin of Virgins

Fr. Benedict D. O'Cinnsealaigh
Mount Saint Mary's Seminary of the West, Cincinnati.

As Christmas approaches, the Church's Advent liturgy seems to be overcome with a sense of anticipation. There is a heightening sense of expectation. The Church longs for the coming of her Lord. The world longs for the coming of her Saviour. This sense of anticipation and expectation is beautifully expressed in the ancient 'O Antiphons' which the Church has incorporated into her Liturgy of the Hours at Evening Prayer as the antiphons before the singing of Mary's Magnificat between the 17 - 23 December. On these last days preceding the Vigil of Christmas the Church's sense of anticipation and excitement, as she waits for the coming of her Bridegroom, is given voice through the hymns and antiphons which echo the Church sentiments and deepest longing, "Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

Most authors agree that there were seven original 'O Antiphons' and that they are a very ancient expression of Christian Prayer. While their author is unknown, they are cited in at least two works as early as the eighth century. Both Cynewulf, an Anglo-Saxon author, and Amalarius, a liturgist and the Archbishop of Trier (d. 850), who was a student of the teacher Alcuin, cite the existence of the 'O Antiphons' as early as the seventh/eighth century.

The 'O Antiphons' get their name from the fact that they all begin with the interjection 'O': O Sapientia (Wisdom); O Adonai (Lord); O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse); O Clavis David (Key of David); O Oriens (Dawn of the East); O Rex Gentium (King of Gentiles); O Emmanuel .

While the original 'O Antiphons' numbered seven, over time a number of others were added to the liturgy of particular regions, and sometimes for particular religious feast days which fell during Advent, or even in the liturgy of some medieval religious orders. Some medieval religious churches had as many as twelve O Antiphons which were sung in the Advent Liturgy leading up to Christmas Eve.

Among these, there was an important Marian 'O Antiphon' which appears in both the Gallican (France) and Saerum (England) liturgies. Although it is difficult to establish just when this antiphon was first introduced, it was certainly known in the Middle Ages.

This Marian Antiphon is still used today in the liturgy of the Norbertine Order. While the Latin Liturgy begins the O Antiphons on December 17 with 'O Sapientia,' and ends on December 23 with 'O Emmanuel,' the Liturgy of the Norbertine Order begins their O Antiphons on December 16 with 'O Sapientia,' and ends on December 23 with the beautiful Marian Antiphon 'O Virgo Virginum.'

O 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.

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? What you behold is a divine mystery!


From: Processionale Praemonstratensis, 1932.


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