O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

In tonight’s antiphon, Christ is extolled as the King of the Nations. The nations are the goyim, the foreign nations, the Gentiles: in terms of the Old Testament, they are the other. A fitting title for the subject of an English language blogpost, about a Latin antiphon sung around the world to a Jewish God-man.

Calling Christ the ‘desire’ of the nations is perhaps an allusion, again, to the Servant Songs in Isaiah. Isaiah 42:4 says of the servant, ולתורתו איים ייחלו – ‘the coastlands/islands shall wait for his law/teaching’. The coastlands or islands (the Hebrew might be translated either way) are understood to represent the Gentiles. The author of these words was inland – either in the highlands of Judah, or in exile in Babylon. The coastlands might be Phoenicia or Philistia. If islands, they might plausibly be Cyprus. The point, either way, is that the Servant – whoever he might be, and whatever the nature of his mysterious suffering – is of relevance beyond the returning exiles of Judah.

Augustine would later reflect on the nature of longing for God, experienced as much by those who do not know him (i.e. the nations) as those who do. At the beginning of his Confessions he recognises this desire is part of being a creature: ‘You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.’ A similar claim lies at the heart of Athanasius’s justification of the Incarnation: the whole purpose of mankind is to know and contemplate God.

The infancy narratives in the Gospels are littered with nods in the direction of Christ’s relevance to the Gentiles, even before he has been introduced to the Jews. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy which presents Christ as the heir of Abraham and David. Its structure is rather deliberate, of three sets of fourteen generations. Another deliberate structural feature is the inclusion of four women in the genealogy (prior to Mary): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Various reasons have been offered for their inclusion, but the most probable seems to be that they are all presented in terms of foreignness. Tamar was a Canaanite, Rahab was the prostitute of pre-Israelite Jericho, Ruth was a Moabite. Bathsheba’s ethnicity is unknown, but in Matthew she is mentioned as ‘the wife of Uriah’. Uriah is, in II Samuel, ‘Uriah the Hittite’. Referring to her only by her foreign husband’s name suggests that the author wishes specifically to foreground her foreignness (even if it were only by marriage).

Reference to Christ in the antiphon as the ‘cornerstone’ reinforces Christ as the king and desire of the nations, as well as the Jews. The image may originally be taken from Old Testament texts like Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22, but it is redeployed by (pseudo?) Paul in Ephesians 2:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

The image of Christ as a cornerstone binding together ‘strangers and aliens’ so that they become ‘a holy temple in the Lord’ where God may dwell, with his household, points towards tomorrow’s antiphon, and towards the mystery of the Incarnation itself.


O Oriens

Sunrise over the Mount of Olives (Wikimedia Commons).

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

The eastern light our spires touch at morning.

Today’s antiphonal title for Christ is something of a translator’s nightmare. Oriens is usually Englished as ‘Morning Star’, sometimes as ‘Dayspring’, despite rather clearly referring to the rising sun in context (sol iustitiae). The title is taken from Zechariah 3:8. The Latin Oriens follows the Septuagint’s Ἀνατολήν, the ‘Rising [sun]’. The Septuagint, however, is translating the Hebrew צֶמַח (tsemach). The verbal root זמח (tsmch) doesn’t so much mean ‘to rise’ (like the Sun), but ‘to sprout’ or ‘to spring up’. English translations tend to render it ‘the Branch’. The JPS Tanakh goes for ‘the Shoot’.

The צֶמַח is ‘my servant’, that is, YHWH’s. So who is he for Zechariah? The majority of interpreters think Zerubbabel – the Davidic heir sent to the Persian province of Yehud as a governor (not as king) – is the likely candidate. Zechariah 6:12 says that צֶמַח will rebuild the Temple, and 4:9 that Zerubbabel laid the Temple’s foundations. ‘Branch’ or ‘Shoot’ may also be a pun on Zerubbabel’s name; the first element (זר) may mean ‘sown’ (זרוע), cf. ‘seed’ (זרע).

Others think that this may be the other character described in the vision of Zechariah 3: the High Priest of the restored Temple, Joshua. This seems an unlikely historical-critical reading, but the matter is once again complicated in terms of Christian reception. Joshua in the Greek is Ἰησοῦς, in Latin Iesus.

Christian typological readings of Oriens / ‘the Branch’ in Zechariah 3, and in this antiphon, are capable of combining the two connotations, since the New Testament portrays Christ as both the Davidic King and as the (heavenly, cf. Hebrews) High Priest.

Triumph o’er the shades of night

Regardless of the original meaning of the epithet in Zechariah 3, it is clearly interpreted as solar in the antiphon. The phrase ‘sun of righteousness/justice’ is taken from Malachi 4:2 (Hebrew 3:20). The imagery appears to be more than a simple metaphor – the sun in Malachi has wings; it is presented as a divine figure. There’s plenty of literature that argues there was a solarisation of the Judahite conception of YHWH during the neo-Assyrian period. For example, 2 Kings 23:11 refers to the horses and chariots of the sun  as part of the cultic furniture of YHWH’s Temple.

The Hebrew word for ‘sun’ is שֶׁמֶשׁ (shemesh), which is cognate with Shamash, a sun god attested in Babylon and Assyria. Shamash was also associated with justice and righteousness. Shamash, for example, is presented as the deity ultimately responsible for Hammurabi’s Laws. As god of truth and justice, his help was invoked to guarantee the accuracy of practices of divination, e.g. hepatoscopy. It seems possible, therefore, that the antiphon is taking over some pre-Biblical imagery from the religious cultures of Israel’s neighbours, oppressors, and captors.

The image of those sitting in darkness is taken from the oracle in Isaiah 9, which English readers will recognise in from the Authorised Version in its traditional and ubiquitous application to Christ in Carol Services: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’ The antiphon returns to Isaiah, the Fifth Gospel, where once again an oracle originally delivered concerning Davidic royalty (Hezekiah?) is applied in a greater, messianic sense to Christ.

Ex oriente, ad orientem

The Orient – the East – the Rising Sun – was for the vast majority of Christian history the direction of Christian prayer. Most churches still face east, though, regrettably, priests at the altar now follow the twentieth-century fashion of facing their congregations and praying westwards. Eastward prayer is the Christian norm is attested from the second century onwards: Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen furnish evidence for the custom. John of Damascus, writing in the ninth century, preserves contemporary justifications for Eastward facing prayer, which include the rather touching assertion that in doing so we face our original, paradisiacal homeland in Eden.

In Advent, however, Eastward facing prayer particularly signifies the Christian expectation that Christ, like the sun which has set but will surely rise again in the morning, will one day return iudicare vivos et mortuos.

O Clavis David

Initial of Psalm 26/7, ‘Dominus illuminatio mea‘. The prophet Samuel anoints the boy David. French, c. 1205-10.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

A time to rend, a time to sew.

The Advent Antiphons are composed, as we repeatedly see, from fragments of the Old Testament. The vast majority of the source material is taken from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah is frequently treated by the Fathers as a ‘fifth Gospel’ (an epithet shared with Dante’s Commedia). Jerome, in his preface to the Vulgate translation of Isaiah, wrote that  the mysteries of Christ and the Church were so clearly taught by the prophet that he should rather be known as an evangelist. The antiphons stand in this tradition: reading Isaiah as an Old Testament evangelist.

This method of combining Biblical texts for the purpose of both deeper reflection on Scripture and worship might profitably be explored with reference to structuralist theory. Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gérard Genette each work with a notion of the bricoleur. A bricoleur ‘creates a structure out of a previous structure by rearranging elements which are already arranged within the objects of his or her study’ (Allen, 2011). The former uses the bricoleur as a model for primitive myth-makers, the latter for literary critics.

The antiphons read and use the Old Testament in a similar way. Elements of a structure, the Christian canon of the Old Testament, are rearranged into a new structure: a series of prayers which identify Christ with the God of the Old Testament. A destructive act – disassembling the texts which make up the Old Testament – leads into a productive one. What is produced is really a way of reading the original structure, the previous system. This is a tearing-and-sewing hermeneutic (cf. Ecc. 3:7).

Every scribe taught in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.

The Key

The motif of the key is rooted in Isaiah 22, which contains an unusually personal oracle against Shebna, the majordomo of king Hezekiah of Judah. Isaiah, it seems something of a patrician figure, attacks Shebna for having a tomb built for himself: Isaiah appears to regard this as rather above his target’s station. (Incidentally, some have argued that this lintel is physical evidence of the tomb in question, though crucially Shebna’s name is missing). Isaiah predicts Shebna will be removed from office and replaced by one Eliakim: vv. 21-22 say (in YHWH’s voice) that this involves  a transfer of ceremonial clothing, of government, and of the “key of the house of David”, so that “[Eliakim] shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” The key is a symbol of royal authority, exercised by the king’s chief minister.

Eliakim is also called ‘my servant’ (v. 20). This is a title associated with the so-called ‘Servant Songs’ embedded in what is usually regarded the second part of the book of Isaiah (chs. 40-55). The motif of the suffering servant, whose miseries are somehow going to be to the ultimate benefit of this part of the book’s audience despite their continuing exile in Babylon, is frequently appropriated to Christ. The latter part of today’s antiphon refers to this servant, and to the song about him in Isaiah 42. The theme of captivity (42:7) is appropriate to Babylonian exile, and is of course applied to Christ: mankind is imprisoned by sin and/or death. The previous verse presents the Servant as a covenant to the people (presumably Israel/Judah), and as a light to the Gentiles. The New Testament itself applies this imagery to Christ, in the text we know as the Nunc Dimittis.

The specific title, Key of David, is also directly applied to Christ in the New Testament. In Revelation 3, the Visionary St. John sends a warning to the Church of Philadelphia (Asia Minor) from Christ. Christ is said to hold the Key of David, and to have opened a door for the Philadelphians which nobody can shut. It is their entrance into heaven, should they endure persecution for his sake. Perhaps significantly, the next chapter begins with an open door, through which John sees the elders (of Israel? of the Church?) worshipping before the throne of God.

The antiphon, then, stitches together various Biblical texts to produce a reading of the Old Testament which shows Christ wielding the authority of Davidic kings, and implicitly of God himself, for the liberation of mankind, and to open to the heavens to them that know him.

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

Today’s antiphon identifies Christ as the Root of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David, grandfather of Solomon, and progenitor of the royal family of the Kingdom of Judah. Micah 5 foretells a ruler who shall come out of Bethlehem, where David grew up as the youngest of Jesse’s sons, before being unexpectedly singled out and anointed as Israel’s future king by the prophet Samuel. (That Jesse was a sheep-farming local landowner is not quite as humble as might appear to modern preconceptions of kingship: II Kings 3:4 introduces King Mesha of Moab, whose wars against Israel are independently attested by a stele in the Louvre, as a wealthy sheep-breeder.)

Jesus is presented as David’s heir by the New Testament. This is no retroactive invention of the Infancy Narratives in gospels written at the turn of the second century. Romans 1:3, written a couple of decades after Jesus’s earthly life, describes Christ as “of the seed of David according to the flesh”. Of course, this sits somewhat awkwardly in the New Testament with the conviction that Christ was not the natural son of Joseph of Nazareth, David’s distant descendent.

As an aside, Eusebius (History 3.19-20) preserves an interesting tradition, ascribed to Hegesippus, whom Eusebius claims (and Eusebius is not always hugely reliable…) was a second century Jewish convert to Christianity. Hegesippus recounts that the grandchildren of Christ’s brother Jude were denounced as Davidic royalty to the Emperor Domitian, who released them on hearing that they were mere farmers, and seeing their hands calloused by their agricultural work.

The antiphon’s text draws on Isaiah 11. The Root of Jesse – presumably a future king of Judah drawn from the Davidic dynasty – is there presented as a sign of hope. The king will enjoy a special relationship with YHWH, both mankind and the animal kingdom shall be at peace, and the whole world shall know YHWH. The appeal of this text to Christian interpreters of the Old Testament is obvious, and needs no particularly academic explanation.

Instead, having mentioned yesterday the issue of dealing with Christian interpretation of the Old Testament texts stretching to those we might consider deuterocanonical or apocryphal, tonight I give you Psalm 151 (in the NRSV translation). Rejected by the Western, Latin Church – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – this Psalm is accepted as canonical by the Eastern Churches. One of the main reasons for its rejection was the lack of a Hebrew version, leading to suspicions that it was a Greek (and therefore ‘inauthentic’) composition. It was subsequently discovered in Hebrew at Qumran.

The Psalm purports to be the ipsissima verba of David – here we encounter a very canonical ‘David’, writing as prophet, poet, and king – supposedly after he slew Goliath. It does not mention Jesse by name, but dwells on David’s origins as the younger son serving his landowning father as a shepherd.

Psalm 151. This psalm is ascribed to David as his own composition (though it is outside the number), after he had fought in single combat with Goliath.

I was small among my brothers,
   and the youngest in my father’s house;
I tended my father’s sheep. 
My hands made a harp;
   my fingers fashioned a lyre. 
And who will tell my Lord?
   The Lord himself; it is he who hears. 
It was he who sent his messenger
   and took me from my father’s sheep,
   and anointed me with his anointing-oil. 
My brothers were handsome and tall,
   but the Lord was not pleased with them. 
I went out to meet the Philistine,
   and he cursed me by his idols. 
But I drew his own sword;
   I beheaded him, and took away disgrace from the people of Israel.


O Adonai

The Burning Bush, Notre Dame de Paris.
Wikimedia Commons.

The antiphon for the 18th December:

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in inge flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem didisti:
veni ad redimedum nos in brachio extento.

This will be a less polished post, as I make up for lost time. I’d like to suggest that there are three main theological points raised in hearing this particular antiphon, which identifies the coming Christ with the God who appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, and gave the Torah to Israel at Sinai.

The God Who Appears

Those of you who know me and my research will know that I’m particularly interested in theophany in the Old Testament. That is, those occasions on which God manifested himself, showed himself, somehow visually or sensibly revealed himself to an individual or a group. They are highly dramatic moments, often pivotal points in a given Old Testament narrative.

There is a tension in Christian readings of Old Testament theophanies. On the one hand, Christian doctrine recognises, as I did in the first post in this series, that one of Christ’s central claims was that Before Abraham was, I am. Many of the early Apologists pointed to the Old Testament theophanies as appearances of Christ the Logos to his own forebears. In Justin Martyr’s purported Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (38.1) it is on the issue of theophany that Trypho accuses Justin of blasphemy:

“For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped.”

One of the ways in which early Christians articulated their understanding of the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the God of Israel was to identify Christ with those appearances God makes to his people in the Old Testament.

Augustine, however, in Books II and III of the De Trinitate takes a starkly different view. His defence of Trinitarian doctrine is on guard on against any reading of Scripture that would suggest that Christ is inferior to the Father. In very broad terms (this is a very unacademic summary), he is suspicious of the idea that the Son might be seen, while the Father remains invisible; this might imply an ontological superiority of the Father. Instead, he argues that the whole Godhead, the divine essence proper to all three persons of the Trinity is invisible, and instead God manifests himself by created things, created visionary experiences. Furthermore, these created theophanies are the work of the whole Trinity, which acts as a unity. Even when a theophany appears to reveal one particular person of the Trinity, this theophany is only ever produced by the whole Trinity working together, by a creature. Augustine seems to think that it is angels who do the work of appearing.

Reading the Old Testament, and the House of Israel

The antiphon also identifies the coming Christ as ruler of the House of Israel. This is no great surprise given the context: he is the God who appears to Israel, and he gives Israel the Torah which constitutes Israel as a people under covenant with God.

Yet I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with a glass image of Christ appearing to Moses in the Burning Bush from the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. The great West door of the same Cathedral is flanked by two figures. On the one side, the youthful, beautiful girl who represents the Church, radiant in the splendour of Christian truth. On the other, the older woman, blindfolded in ignorance, representing the Synagogue, those who have rejected Christ.

It is beyond the scope of this post to detail the various ways in which Christian readings of the Old Testament can relate to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Suffice it here to say that while some of us think that it is fundamentally necessary for Christian theologians to read the Old Testament as presenting Christ as the God of Israel, and that Christ is the fulfilment of Israel’s Law, we have a moral, ethical, and theological duty to remember the ways that various Christian readings and misreadings of Scripture have fed into anti-Semitism and violent prejudice against Jews, and to guard against those outcomes.

Adonai and the Name

Adonai is not a name, but a title. It means ‘my Lords’ (probably to be read as a plural of majesty, cf. Elohim). It is a stand-in, pronounced in the reading out-loud of Hebrew Scripture in place of the Divine Name YHWH (usually vocalised as Yahweh). Jews and others tend not to pronounce the Divine Name itself out of respect for its near indescribable holiness.

(Incidentally, the use of a title in place of a divine name is not unique to the reading of the Hebrew Bible. The deity presented as God’s bête noire in the Hebrew Bible – whom we know as Ba’al – was in fact probably the other Semitic storm and weather god, Hadad. Ba’al is a title, meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master’ (in modern Hebrew it means ‘husband’). Similarly, Isaiah 46:1 refers to the Babylonian chief deity Marduk as ‘Bel’, a cognate title. The Greek divinity Adonis was also likely just such a deity, with the same West Semitic title ‘Adon as used in the Hebrew Bible and this antiphon. That Adonis is derived from such a Semitic divine title is suggested by the Greek belief that he came originally from Phoenicia.)

An antiphon which addresses Jesus as ‘Adonai’ reminds us that the New Testament most frequently calls him kyrios, ‘Lord’ or ‘Sir’. Sometimes this may be read simply as the polite form of deferential address in first century society, but often it seems deliberately to recall the Divine Name. Kyrios is the Septuagint’s equivalent for Adonai in replacing the Divine Name out of respect for its holiness. The application of the Divine Name to Christ is one of the New Testament’s most powerful rhetorical tools for suggesting Jesus’s status alongside the Father. Philippians 2:9, discussing the exaltation of Jesus, says that God gave him “the name that is above every other name”. Richard Bauckham points out (references supplied on request – they don’t fit the blog format very well) that in the following verse the whole creation is said to worship Jesus, and that this is to the glory of the Father, rather than in rivalry to him. Bauckham suggests that this suggests that the name given to Jesus is none other than YHWH.

The Divine Name is a key part of the Deuteronomistic theology of divine presence. In Deuteronomy 12, which legislates for a single place of sacrificial worship for Israel (implicitly the Temple at Jerusalem), the location is repeatedly referred to in terms of being a place where God has chosen to cause his Name to dwell. The Name can be read as functioning as a metonym – guarding against a divine anthropomorphism – for the divine presence. Associating the Divine Name with Christ, as kyrios or Adonai, is an indicator of his relationship to the Godhead.

‘Jesus’ is for Christians itself a divine name. Its Hebrew original is familiar to us as the anglicised Joshua. It is a theophoric name, bearing within itself the shortened form (YHW) of the Divine Name. Christians have often treated the name Jesus in a similarly roundabout, reverent way, referring instead to Christ, ‘Our Lord’, etc. In the fifteenth century, devotion to the name Jesus was promoted by the Franciscan missionary Bernadino of Siena.


O Sapientia

Christ as the Holy Wisdom. 17th century, Perm.
Wikimedia Commons.

[This should have been posted yesterday, for Evensong on the 17th December, but I was in a pub at St. Albans with Brendan and Rosie.]

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

Christ the Wisdom of God

The first of the Great Antiphons is a hymn to Christ as the Wisdom of God. ‘O Wisdom, who came forth out of the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end [of the world] to the other, mightily and delightfully arranging all things: come to teach us the right/prudent way.’

‘Wisdom’ (חכמה, σοφία) is a broad category in Scripture. It covers everything from the ‘fear of the Lord’ (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10), to the skill of craftsmen and weaving women (Ex. 35), to the wicked, low cunning of Absalom’s friend Jonadab, who conspires in incestuous rape plot (II Sam. 13:3). Yet here, above all else, it is applied to Christ in realtion to God the Father: ‘We preach Christ crucified … Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God’ (I Cor. 1:23-4). Christ as the Wisdom of God proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, as the spoken Word, the Logos.

Christian tradition here builds upon Biblical precedent. Proverbs 8 describes God’s Wisdom as a goddess figure. Lady Wisdom is a personification of a divine attribute, a hypostatisation of one of God’s properties. This personification of a divine attribute proved immensely useful to early Christian apologists: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Tertullian all use Proverbs 8:22ff to argue that the Wisdom (and therefore Logos) of God is distinct from the Father. Later, Arius would base his denial of the Son’s eternity alongside the Father on the implication in 8:22ff that Wisdom had a beginning before creation.

Wisdom and the Canon

If the O Antiphons provide a model for a Christian reading of the Old Testament, this first antiphon proves an interesting initial foray. While the Wisdom of the Most High is a familiar figure in Scripture, as I have shown briefly above (particularly Proverbs 8 and I Corinthians 1:23-4), the text of the antiphon draws mostly on a resource outside the Hebrew Bible, i.e. outside the canon of Scripture known to most Protestants and Jews. It recalls quite clearly at Wisdom [of Solomon] 8:1: ‘She [Lady Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.’ This will be no great surprise to Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Churches, which have received the book of Wisdom as part of the canon of the Old Testament.

This is a timely reminder – for both the Church and for the academy – that the [Jewish?] ‘Hebrew Bible’ and the [Christian] Old Testament do not perfectly map onto one another. As I note in this handy book review, the Bible of the early Church was by and large the  Greek Old Testament normally known as the Septuagint, which includes several texts (such as Wisdom) not found in the Hebrew canon. The Church’s reading of Scripture – and its recognition of Christ in the figure of Wisdom – has been the reading of texts like Wisdom 7-8 and Ben Sira 24 as much as Proverbs 8.

Those of us concerned for Biblical theology and for the example of previous generations of the Church Catholic need to show our working when we make decisions (too often merely implicit) about what counts as the Scripture in which we attempt to ground our theology. I think this is a significant enough issue that any of us engaged in the discipline – undergraduates, country vicars, armchair lay theologians – need to have some kind of answer, or at least an intelligent set of counter-questions, to the question of canonicity.

For what it’s worth here, the Church of England endorses a compromise position, whereby the 39 book Jewish/Protestant canon is upheld as the standard against which doctrine is judged, with the deuterocanonical books being read for instruction but not serving as the final standard against which doctrine may be measured. The Thirty-Nine Articles appeal to Jerome’s authority on this issue (and implicitly endorse his idea of the Hebraica veritas), but there are other models, both among the Fathers (see paragraph 7 of Athanasius’s Festal Letter 39 here) and in the early modern period (Cardinal Cajetan, first and foremost).

If the O Antiphons remind us that the Church has traditionally drawn on the deuterocanon, and if we regard the antiphons as providing a model for finding the Word in the Old Testament, this should prompt some serious reflection on the place of the deuterocanonical books within our own theological work.

Some Wisdom addenda

The Emperor Justinian’s cathedral of Hagia Sophia,
with Ottoman minarets added, in modern Istanbul.

The worship of Christ as the Holy Wisdom was, and is, much more widespread in the Orthodox East. Many great churches were dedicated to this understanding of the Word. The main Church at Nicaea, modern Iznik, was dedicated to the Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia – and the building still standing was the venue for the Seventh Œcumenical Council. The cathedral of Constantinople was also dedicated to the Holy Wisdom. It was the seat of the Patriarchate, and the primary state church of the eastern Emperors. Both of these examples were converted into mosques after each city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans. The latter is now a museum, while the former was again turned into a mosque in 2011, per the decision of Turkey’s ostensibly secular government. A final example is the Hagia Sophia of Thessaloniki, Greece, which too was converted into a mosque after the conquest in 1430, but was reconsecrated to Orthodox worship after the annexation of Macedonia by the Kingdom of Greece in 1912. It is difficult to overstate the prominence of the Holy Wisdom in the experiences – both imperial and persecuted – of the Greek Church.

Hagia Sophia, Thessalonki.

A second miscellaneous issue regards sex and gender. That the Greek and Hebrew lexemes for Wisdom are feminine, and that the texts discussed above personify Wisdom as a female, goddess-like figure, feminist theologies have often sought to present the Holy Wisdom as a respite from (if not an antidote to) the masculine and patriarchal language used to describe God in Scripture. The basic legitimacy of this should probably be conceded, but is it problematic (to feminist theologians, and to theologians in general) that this most prominent example of feminine imagery applied to God in Scripture should also be most directly applied to God the Son? The Son, after all, is the only divine person who by virtue of the Incarnation is properly male in the usual, literal, biological sense of the word.

Advent and the ‘O Antiphons’


Incipit of The Wisdom of Solomon, from the Codex Gigas,
Podlažice, via Wikimedia Commons.

For those of us whose theological thoughts and work are ordered by the liturgical calendar (or Kalendar, if we’re being fussy), Advent offers an unusually rich mixture of dogmatics and textual juxtaposition. Advent is drawing towards its inexorable climax, anticipating that second advent which we can neither hasten nor prevent.

As ever, I’d like to contend that the Church’s liturgical praxis reveals something about what the Church believes: lex orandi lex credendi. In general terms, the Latin church’s observance of Advent is grounded in the fundamental insight of Christian theology that Alpha and Omega are one and the same in the eternal Word of God (Rev. 1.8; 22.13, echoing Isa. 44.6). NB, this is Nicene christology: there was not when he was not.

The Church of England manifests this in the Advent Collects recited each Sunday during the season. The First Sunday’s explicitly connects the first coming of Christ ‘in great humility’ to ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty’. The Second roots us in historic Israel’s Scriptures, ‘written for our learning’, for us to ‘hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’. The Third addresses Christ and moves from John Baptist, his Forerunner, whom God sent as a ‘messenger to prepare thy way before thee’ to ‘thy second coming to judge the world’. And the Fourth, this year on Christmas Eve, collapses the past and future advents of Christ to ask, ‘raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us’. Christmas celebrates the entry of the Eternal – the First and the Last, besides whom there is no God – into human history. Advent anticipates this by juxtaposing Israel’s history with our future.

The O Antiphons and Christ in the Old Testament.

In the last few days of Advent this general schema is heightened by the introduction of the so-called ‘O Antiphons’, traditionally sung before the Magnificat at Vespers/Evensong between the 17th and 23rd December. The antiphons daily address Christ in Old Testament terms: O Sapientia (Oh Wisdom); O Adonai (Oh LORD, i.e. YHWH); O Radix Iesse (Oh root of Jesse); O clavis David (Oh Key of David); O Oriens (Oh rising sun); O Rex Gentium (Oh king of the Nations); O Emmanuel (Oh God-with-us).

The basic theological function of the O Antiphons is obvious. The Church affirms liturgically that the Christ who was born at Bethlehem, and whose return she anticipates, is both the Deity of the Old Testament and the inheritor of House of David. The O Antiphons summarise Israel’s experience of God, and then apply this experience to the Incarnate Word. They are Nicene, and Anti-Marcionite.

The latter point – their implicit stance against Marcionism – is significant for those of us who do what might be described as Biblical theology in the broadly catholic tradition. They are a reminder that , while the texts of the New Testament may have been written decades after the Church’s beginnings, and were not collected into a stable canon for some generations, the Church has never been without Scripture by which to test its rule of faith. The sacred writings of Israel were the Bible of the earliest Church, and in their pages the apostles, the apostolic fathers, and the apologists found the confirmation of their preaching, and of their regula fidei. When Paul or the ancient creeds say that the central claims of Christianity are “according to the Scriptures”, they mean these writings of Israel.

Advent is a refresher course in the praxis of Christian reading of the Old Testament. Hundreds of thousands of people will hear it at Nine Lessons and Carols, aptly summarised in Milner-White’s bidding prayer: “Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.”

Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.

 Before Abraham was, I am.