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
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.