O Sapientia: O Holy Wisdom

Beginning with the 17th of December, the liturgical tradition marks each day until Christmas Eve with an ancient and mysterious text, one of the so-called O-Antiphons. The O-Antiphons are among the most magnificent and ancient compositions of the Roman liturgy. Dating back to at least the seventh century, they are antiphons for the Magnificat, chanted at Vespers on the days before Christmas Eve. They are named “O” after their introductory exclamation of longing. The O-Antiphons give voice to the deepest longing of Advent, the coming of the Redeemer. Each daily antiphon takes a different image from the Hebrew Scriptures — Wisdom, Lord of Israel, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dawn, King of Nations, Emmanuel — to plead for the coming of Christ. Together, these antiphons move toward Christ’s birth, celebrated the day after the last of them has been chanted. In the English-speaking world, the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has popularized these O-Antiphons far beyond the confines of the church’s liturgy.

On December 17, the O-Antiphon begins by invoking “Holy Wisdom,” the ancient feminine embodiment of the Divine Presence in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here is the Latin text, and a literal translation:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, who proceeded from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other and ordering all things powerfully and gently: come to teach us the way of prudence.

And here is how one might speak this ancient text for today:

O Holy Wisdom,
how I long for you!
You are the Word of Life
whispered by the Divine Presence.
With fierce tenderness
you reach to touch the ends of the galaxy
and the edges of the universe,
inviting all creation to flourish.
Come, Holy Wisdom,
show us wisdom’s ways.

With eight more shopping days left before Christmas, may the praying and counting the O-Antiphons direct our desires toward that midnight hour between the 24th and the 25th of December when, two millennia ago God was born in human form.

The above rendition of the first of the O-Antiphons by Teresa Berger originally appeared in her book Fragments of Real Presence (NY; Crossroad, 2005). Copyright © 2005, Teresa Berger. All rights reserved.

21 comments

  1. May these antiphons also draw us closer to the woman who bore God before He was born on earth. The song from her pregnancy is the context for these antiphons and gives them much of their power. Here, “ordering all things powerfully and gently” recalls the lyrics about the treatment of the hungry and the rich, princes and the lowly.

  2. For a treat, listen to Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s suave and lusciously affective settings of the antiphons (“Salut de la veille des O”, c.1690). The superb recording I know best (Christie/Les Arts Florissants, Harmonia Munci) seems to be out of print, but there is another available on Hyperion (Skidmore/Ex Cathedra Choir and Orch).

  3. “O Holy Wisdom,
    how I long for you!”
    No, too subjective.

    “You are the Word of Life
    whispered by the Divine Presence.”
    Should we be telling Wisdom who he/she/it is? The Word whispered by a presence seems pretty insubstantial.

    “With fierce tenderness
    you reach to touch the ends of the galaxy
    and the edges of the universe,
    inviting all creation to flourish.”
    Sounds sentimental and science-fictive.

    To compose prayers that can last and can be embraced by the whole community turns out to be a very, very demanding task (not the “relatively straightforward” business that Bp Roche imagined it to be).

  4. Thanks for posting. This brings back wonderful memories. Over thirteen years I had the privilege of singing and participating in the Prophecies/O antiphons with the Vincentian Community – we called it the “Christmas Novena.”

    Was introduced and learned the Vincentian (Congregation of the Mission – CM) in 1969 and then four years of college in Perryville, MO. We would sing in the early evening with the whole town invited and then cram for mid term exams. Here is a so-so recording of the O-Antiphons in four part harmony:

    C:\Documents and Settings\wfdehaas\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Outlook\9QDADN8V\Xmas Novena Prophecies (2).zip

    Rev. John Rybolt, CM, VP of Mission, at DePaul University wrote this history of the Christmas Novena in 1986 dating back to the 17th century in Italy:

    http://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1045&context=vhj

    Vernacular, four part, musically was first written in 1920 at Kenrick Seminary; then translated and updated in St. Louis by Mgsr. Martin B. Heltriegel, long a champion of popular liturgical piety. He took the novena in hand and, probably in the 1930s,-with Rev. Souvay, CM’s help-prepared an English version.

    After the Council, several other versions appeared
    both in Italy and in the United States, adapting the
    distinctive parts of the novena to a more liturgical style. This revised novena was held in the vernacular, usually shortened musically, but lengtheneu with biblical readings using the form of the Novena
    Vacchetta modeled.

    Interesting footnote on translations.

  5. Thank you for the Rybolt article, Bill. Very interesting.

    You might want to correct Heltriegel to Hellriegel, by the way.

    1. Figured someone would raise that issue. Asked Rybolt about that – it also caught my eye. The spelling is correct per the original German used in St. Louis in the 19th, early 20th century.
      Per Rybolt’s research, this is how the family spelled the name.
      You know these historians.

      Go figure!

      1. Merry Christmas, Bill, and may you have a happy and healthy new year.

        I should know better than to grasp at sawdust in others’ eyes, when I planks in my own, so forgive me if I’m doing this blind.

        You said that you consulted Rybolt about the spelling, and that his research confirmed that the original German spelling used in St. Louis at the time was “Heltriegel”, and you said that Rybolt spelled the name this way in his article on purpose and that you merely copied his work.

        But Rybolt didn’t spell the name “Heltriegel” in the article; he spelled it “Hellriegel” every time. The only place the name appears to be spelled with a “t” is at the bottom of page 259, where a printing artifact makes the second “l” look a bit like a “t” (although more like the Polish “ł”).

        I decided to see what happened when I copied the text of the PDF and pasted it somewhere else: I got “Martin B. Heltriegel”. So it seems to me that you copied the PDF’s text, and that’s the source of the typo, not Rybolt, not some older traditional spelling.

        That appears to me to be the most plausible explanation, but that’s probably the computer scientist in me.

      2. Mary, I care enough about it (at the moment) to be curious about it. Bill appears to have cared enough about the peculiar spelling to have contacted the author of the article about it.

        Happy third day of Christmas!

  6. Paul – John prides himself on his historical knowlege and he purposedly spelled his name the old European, family way in his article. I merely copied his work – he used to teach me history and for a few years I was a founding member of the Vincentian Studies Institute. Can’t say that I ever published anything.

  7. I think Wisdom 8 is science-fictive, describing a cosmic being who comes to walk through the city. It is hard to capture that tone. Maybe by joining the galactic Milky Way with a mother’s milk?

  8. Thanks for this poetic interpretation, which does indeed remind me of Hildegard. Speaking of whom, I see that the pope is set to name her a Doctor of the Church next October–now *there’s* a woman who would have had no interest in formal equivalence…

  9. Why “supplement” a perfectly good translation with a very poor paraphrase devoid of literary or theological merit?

    1. Since no translation ever captures all of the mening from another language, even a very poor paraphrase devoid of theological merit can help with understanding.

      And this paraphrase is not devoid of theological merit. Over the past century, cosmology has moved from seeing the universe as in a “steady state” to seeing it as constantly expanding. Either of these might be understood as how Wisdom “disponens” in the Latin, but replacing language of “ordering” with “flourishing” makes a profound comment about God’s dispositions that is more attuned to our modern cosmologies.

      There is still more that could be unpacked from the Latin that is not visible either in translation or supplement, ie further praraphrases could be helpful:

      Come and guide us as we find our boundaries in this endless universe.

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