On the ‘O’ Antiphons and the Nativity (GA 3.5-7)

Ch. 5
On the “O” Antiphons

Nativity 1
The Nativity, The Hague, KB, 74 G 38, fol. 38r.


The seven “O’s” are sung more as expressions of wonder than invocations. In them we signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, by which the Incarnation is carried out, and through which Christ is invited by the Church. For he is the Wisdom in which the Father made all things, and came in the spirit of wisdom to teach us “the way of prudence.” He is Adonai, who revealed his name to Moses when he gave him the Law on Sinai, who comes in the spirit of understanding to redeem us. He is the Root of Jesse, who “stood as a sign to the peoples” when he willed to be adored everywhere through the sign of the cross, and he comes in the spirit of of counsel to deliver us. He is the Key of David who “opened” heaven for the just, “shut” the gates of hell, and came in the spirit of fortitude to “free those who were bound in the prison house.” He is the Morning Star and the Sun of justice who comes to “enlighten” us with the spirit of knowledge. He is the King of the nations and the Cornerstone, who comes to save man through the spirit of piety. He is Emmanuel coming to us in Israel, “coming to save” us through the spirit of fear, giving to everyone the chrism oils of love. The singing of the twelve “O’s” expresses the twelve apostles who preached Christ’s advent, as we read.

CAP. V. – De antiphonis O.

Septem O admirando potius quam vocando cantantur, in quibus septem dona Spiritus sancti notantur, per quae haec administratur incarnatio, et per quae Christus ab Ecclesia invitatur. Ipse quippe est sapientia, in qua Pater fecit omnia, qui venit in spiritum sapientiae, docere nos viam prudentiae. Ipse Adonai quod nomen Moysi indicavit, cui legem in Sina dedit, qui venit per spiritum intelligentiae, nos redimere. Ipse radix Iesse, qui in signum populorum stetit, dum per signum crucis ubique adorari voluit, qui in spiritu consilii nos liberare venit. Ipse clavis David, qui coelum iustis aperuit, infernum clausit, et per spiritum fortitudinis vinctos de domo carceris educere venit. Ipse Oriens et Sol iustitiae, qui venit nos illuminare spiritu scientiae. Ipse Rex gentium et lapis angularis, qui venit salvare hominem per spiritum pietatis. Ipse est Emmanuel veniens ad nos per Israel, qui venit ad salvandum nos per spiritum timoris, dans cunctis charismata amoris. Si duodecim O cantantur, tunc duodecim prophetae exprimuntur, qui Christi adventum praedicasse leguntur.

Nativity 2
« Livre lequel entre aultres matieres traitte de la nativité Nostre Seigneur Jhesu Crist, de sa vye, de sa passion, de sa resurrection et d’aultres belles et devotes matieres, compilé par Jehan Mansel, notable clercq lay, demourant a Hesdin en Artois ». Volume 1er Source: gallica.bnf.fr
Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5205 réserve, fol. 10v.

Ch. 6
On the Vigils of the Saints

Vigils originated with the shepherds who kept watch (vigilias) over their flocks by night as Christ was being born (Luke 2). The ancient custom was to perform two night offices on the major feast days: one at night’s beginning by the pontiff with his chaplains without the Invitatorium Venite, another at the middle of the night with the clergy, as in the solemn celebrations we observe today. The people who had gathered in great numbers for the feast used to watch through the whole night singing praises. In later times, however, fools turned a good thing into a mockery, and gave themselves over to bawdy songs and dances, drinking and fornication. Vigils were forbidden and days of fasting took their place, but retained the name of Vigils. According to the ancient custom, therefore, two offices are assigned to the night of Our Lord’s Birth. In the first one, the antiphons Dominus dixit ad me, In sole posuit, and Elevamini, and the Responsory Ecce Agnus Dei are sung along with everything else [as usual]. In the other, the antiphons Dominus dixit, Tanquam sponsus, Diffusa est gratia, and the Responsory Hodie nobis are sung with all the rest [as usual].

CAP. VI. – De vigiliis sanctorum.

Vigiliae a pastoribus coeperunt, qui vigilias supra greges suos nascente Christo custodierunt (Luc. II). More antiquo duo nocturnalia officia in praecipuis festivitatibus agebantur: unum in initio noctis a pontifice cum suis capellanis absque Venite; aliud in media nocte in clero, sicut adhuc solemniter celebratur. Et populus, qui ad festum confluxerat, tota nocte in laudibus vigilare solebat. Postquam vero illusores bonum in ludibrium permutaverunt, et turpibus cantilenis ac saltationibus, potationibus et fornicationibus operam dederunt. Vigiliae interdictae et dies ieiunii dedicati sunt, et vigiliarum nomen retinuerunt. Secundum antiquum ergo morem duo officia nocti Natalis Domini ascribuntur. Unum in qua antiphona Dominus dixit ad me. In sole posuit, Elevamini et responsorium, Ecce Agnus Dei, cum reliquis canuntur. Aliud in quo antiphona Dominus dixit, Tanquam sponsus, Diffusa est gratia, et responsorium Hodie nobis cum aliis concinuntur.

Ch. 7
On the Lord’s Nativity

Nativity 3
Horae ad usum Parisiensem ou Petites heures de Jean de Berry.
Source: gallica.bnf.fr

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 18014, fol. 40v.

The word “festival” comes from fasti divinitas, i.e. the anniversary or right of divinity, because every year on this day the divinity is given its due. “Celebration” comes from celibum, i.e. the ritual of the chaste, because in it the rites of heaven are performed by chaste people. “Socan” means frequent, hence we have the word solemnitas because in a solemnity the people frequent the church. The feast is called the Lord’s Nativity because we believe that on that day Christ was born in the flesh. The Church celebrates this Nativity because formerly everyone, not only kings, celebrated their birthdays. So we celebrate his temporal birth because through him we are reborn to eternity. Christ willed to be born at the end of the year because he came into the world at the end of the age. It also pleased him to be born at night because he came in secret, hidden in the form of flesh. After his birth the days get longer, because those who believe in him are called to the light of eternity.

The Invitatory Christus natus est nobis is sung in the person of the angels, by whom the shepherds, or rather all people are invited to pray to Christ. We sing joyfully to him in three psalms, and give him applause in the readings through the oracles of the prophets. In the Responsories we sing with the angels. These Responsories portray the restoration through this nativity of all things in heaven and on earth, and the damnation of all infernal things. In the first Responsory Gaudet exercitus angelorum we sing the restoration of heavenly things. In the second Pax vera descendit we sing the reparation of earthly things. In the third Introivit in regionem nostram we recall the liberation of those sitting in the region of the shadow of death. Because there is no doubt that the Trinity accomplished all these things, the Gloria Patri is sung in every Responsory.

CAP. VII. – De Nativitate Domini.

Festivitas, quasi fasti divinitas, id est, annua vel ius divinitatis dicitur, quia illa die annuatim ius divinitati persolvitur. Celebritas quasi celibum, id est, castorum ritus dicitur, quia in illa ritus coelestium a castis agitur: Socan dicitur frequens, inde solemnitas appellatur, quia in ea a conventu populi Ecclesia frequentatur. Natalis itaque Domini inde dicitur, quia in eo Christus natus in carne creditur, quem Natalem Ecclesia ideo celebrat, quia olim non solum reges, sed et quique natalem suum celebrabant. Ideo et nos celebramus eius temporalem natalem, quia per eum renascimur ad aeternitatem. Ideo Christus in fine anni nasci voluit, quia in finem saeculi in mundum venit. Ideo in nocte nasci ei placuit, quia clam scilicet sub carne latens venit. Post eius natalem dierum lux prolongatur, quia in eum credentes ad aeternitatis lucem vocantur. Invitatorium Christus natus est nobis, sub persona angelorum cantatur, a quibus pastores, vel potius omnis populus ad orandum Christum invitatur. Cui in tribus psalmis gaudentes psallimus, in lectionibus per oracula prophetarum plaudimus. In responsoriis cum angelis canimus. Quae responsoria repraesentant cuncta in coelis et in terris per hanc nativitatem instaurata, et infernalia damnata. In primo responsorio in quo Gaudet exercitus angelorum, cantatur restauratio coelestium. In secundo in quo Pax vera descendit, cantatur reparatio terrestrium. In tertio in quo Introivit in regionem nostram, cantatur, liberatio recolitur, in regione umbrae mortis habitantium. Et quia haec cuncta Trinitas operata non dubitatur, ideo etiam ad singula responsoria Gloria Patri cantatur.

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