Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding.

I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop...
It was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 22 December 2014

O Rex gentium

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

O King of the Nations, and their desire; the Corner-stone, who makest both one; Come and save mankind, whom thou formedest of clay.

The key text here is Haggai 2:8,

'Et movebo omnes gentes, Et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus'

'And I shall shake all nations, and the Desired One will come to all nations.'

Haggai is a prophet writing at the time of of what is called the Restoration, that is, the return of the Jews to the holy land after the exile in Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of public and religious institutions. As Haggai writes, these things do not yet amount to much, but he forsees a time when the glory of the restored temple with exceed that of Solomon's original building. Christians see this prophecy fulfilled in Christ.

The phrase 'Rex Gentium' I have not found exactly, but cf. Psalm 2:6-8,

Ego autem constitutus sum Rex ab eo
Super Sion, montem sanctum eius,
Praedicans praeceptum eius.
Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu;
Ego hodie genui te.
Postula a me, et dabo tibi gentes haereditatem tuam,
Et possessionem tuam terminos terrae.

'Yet have I set my King:
upon my holy hill of Sion.
I will preach the law, whereof the Lord hath said unto me:
Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
Desire of me, and I shall give thee the heathen [i.e. nations]
for thine inheritance:
and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession.'

The corner-stone goes back ultimately to Isaiah 28:16,

Ecce ego mittam in fundamentis Sion lapidem,
Lapidem probatum,
Angularem, pretiosum, in fundamento fundatum;

'Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious
corner stone'

This is quoted at 1 Peter 2:6. St Paul at Ephesians 2:20 also refers to Christ as 'ipso summo angulari lapide Christo Iesu' - 'Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone.' In context, Paul explores the meaning of this image as referring to the Jews and Gentiles as it were coming to God from two directions, and meeting in Christ, as two walls meet and join in the
corner-stone. 'Who makest both one' refers to Ephesians 2:14, 'qui fecit utraque unum'.

'Quem de limo formasti' derives from Genesis 2:7, 'Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae.' Again Jesus is identified with the God of Creation, the God of Genesis.

A number of texts have been combined to produce a coherent theology: Christ is the Lord of all nations, both Jews and Gentiles, as a corner-stone supports both walls; he is the agent through whom both were made, and will lead both to a destiny greater than anything in their previous existence.

In addition tomorrow, December 23rd, the last day of the O Antiphons, traditionally has a special antiphon for the Benedictus at Lauds:

Ecce completa sunt omnia, quae dicta sunt per Angelum de Virgine Maria.

Behold, all things are fulfilled, which were spoken by the Angel to the Virgin Mary.

So we are ready for Christmas...

Sunday, 21 December 2014

O Oriens

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

O Day-spring, Brightness of Light Everlasting, and Sun of Righteousness:
Come and enlighten him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death.

This description derives from the Song of Zechariah, or Benedictus, Luke 1:78-79,
Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri:
In quibus visitavit nos, Oriens ex alto,
Illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent . . .

'Through the bowels of compassion of our God,
Through which the Dayspring from on high has visted us,
To illuminate those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death . . .'

Notice that our antiphons are proceeding in a chronological direction through the Bible; not in the texts quoted, which are from here, there and everywhere, but in the events alluded to: Creation - Exodus - Jesse - David - and now the beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist.

The symbolism of light is often applied to Christ in the New Testament, but for specifically eternal light we should look to Isaiah 60, which is all about light. The chapter begins,

Surge, illuminare, Ierusalem, quia venit lumen tuum,
Et gloria Domini super te orta est.
'Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.'

Note orta, 'risen', the past participle of orior, of which Oriens is the present participle. 

At verse 19 of this chapter we find,
Non erit tibi amplius sol ad lucendum per diem,
Nec splendor lunae illuminabit te;
Sed erit tibi Dominus in lucem sempiternam.

'The sun shall be no more thy light by day;
neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee:
but the LORD shall be unto thee an everlasting light.'

This is taken up in the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse:
Et civitas non eget sole, neque luna ut luceant in ea, nam claritas Dei illuminavit eam, et lucerna eius est Agnus. (Rev. 21:23)
'And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.'

We should also note the Second Letter of St Peter, 1:19,

Et habemus firmiorem propheticum sermonem: cui benefacitis attendentes quasi lucernae lucenti in caliginoso donec dies elucescat, et lucifer oriatur in cordibus vestris.
'We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.'

The 'Sun of Righteousness' comes from Malachi 4:2,
'Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum Sol iustitiae, et sanitas in pennis eius.' [note again the use of orior]
'And there shall rise upon you who fear my name the Sun of Righteousness,with healing in his wings.'

To quote a much later writer, Charles Wesley, who continued this highly creative tradition of turning the scriptures into liturgy:

"Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o'er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Daystar, in my heart appear."

Or again, by the same author - quoting it in his original form; we are more familiar with it in the slightly altered form it received from G. Whitefield, M. Madan and others:

"Hail the heavenly Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings."

Saturday, 20 December 2014

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et exuc vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest, and no man shutteth, and shuttest, and no man openeth: come and bring the prisoner out of the prison-house, and him that sitteth in darkness and the shadow of death.

Our antiphons grow fuller and fuller of allusion.The main reference is to a certain Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who is promised at Isaiah 22:22,

Et dabo clavem domus David
Super humerum eius;
Et aperiet, et non erit qui claudat;
Et claudet, et non erit qui aperiat.

'And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.'

Into this text, more or less, the antiphon inserts the word 'sceptre'. This comes from a Messianic prophecy very early in the Bible, at Genesis 49:10,

Non aufertur sceptrum de Iuda,
Et dux de femore eius,
Donec veniat qui mittendus est,
Et ipse erit expectatio gentium.

'The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah,
nor the leader from his thigh,
until he comes who is to be sent,
and he will be the expectation of the nations.'

And who is this who sits in darkness, in prison? We find him in Isaiah 42, another key Messianic passage, which begins:

'Behold my servant, who I uphold: mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth;
I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the
Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench . . .'

Then at verse 7 we find that his mission is:

Ut aperies oculos caecorum,
Et educeres de conclusione vinctum,
De domo carceris sedentes in tenebris.

'To open blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.'

We find St Luke quoting this passage in the Song of Zechariah, or 'Benedictus', in Luke 1:78-79,

Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri:
In quibus visitavit nos, oriens ex alto:
Illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent,
Ad dirigendos pedes nostros in viam pacis.

To Fr East's comments I would add that this antiphon clearly resonates with the Petrine commission of the keys, found in Matthew 16:19, and linked to Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23. Just as it refers back to Isaiah 22, so it links forward to Revelation 1:18.

In addition, tomorrow, December 21st, the traditional feast of St Thomas in the western rite, has a special antiphon for the Benedictus at Lauds:

Nolite timere: quinta enim die veniet ad vos Dominus noster.

Fear not, for on the fifth day our Lord will come to you.

Friday, 19 December 2014

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.

O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

'Radix Jesse' derives from Isaiah 11:1,

Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse, Et flos de radice eius ascendet.

'And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.'

Jesse was the father of King David, founder of the Davidic dynasty of the Kings of Judah. It is very much alive. The Davidic dynasty came to a sticky and apparently final end when Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was taken prisoner by the King of Babylon:

'And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon' [2 Kings 25: 7] where he subsequently died. That was apparently the end of the line for David. But the Jews believed that God would send a Messiah, an 'Anointed one' (Greek 'Christ'), a king in succession to David, a new branch growing up from that truncated tree. Our antiphon salutes Jesus as that new shoot, growing from the stump of Jesse.

If we move on to Isaiah 11:10 we find more of our antiphon:

In die illa radix Iesse, Qui stat in signum populorum, Ipsum gentes deprecabuntur.

'And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek.'

There is a well illustrated account of the history and variety of the iconography of this theme from the mid-twelfth century onwards in the online article Tree of Jesse.

The Tree of Jesse as a genealogy of Our Lord, as in the Gospels, was common in medieval churches - the east windows of Wells Cathedral, Dorchester Abbey and Selby Abbey, as well as a window in the nave of York Minster all illustrate it, as does the reredos of Christ Church Priory in Hampshire. These are all fourteenth century examples.

Part of the Tree of Jesse window, circa 1310
South aisle of the nave,
York Minster


The remaining portion of our antiphon we find at Isaiah 52:15:

Super ipsum continebunt reges os suum,

'The kings shall shut their mouths at him'.

For Christians, this is a 'key' passage of Isaiah, for it occurs at the beginning of one of the 'suffering servant' passages, which Christians have always understood as referring to Christ:

'He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed' (Isaiah 53:3-5).

The O-antiphons, as we have seen, begin with Christ as the God of Creation (O Sapientia), then of the Exodus and the Law (O Adonai). Now we move on to Christ as Son of David, with a hint of his role as suffering servant.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Pope and the Tango

Last night on the BBC Radio 4 news and in various newspapers today reports of the mass tango in St Peter's Square to mark the Pope 's 78th birthday. Designed to make the Argentine born pontiff feel at home the event was reminiscent of some of the more bizarre public events of the pontificate of St John Paul II.

It seems very different from the reactions of St Pius X and his Curia to the tango as recorded in the splendidly readable 1913:The Defiant Swansong by the late Virginia Cowles. Pope Pius, like other social leaders of the time was anxious to find alternatives to the lascivious rhythms and moves of the tango. Should the Church recommend something more proper and discreet? That was a genuine concern in 1913.

How times change.

O Adonai

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et
ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, who appearedst in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gavest him the Law in Sinai: Come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.

"Adonai" means "Lord" and is the name used in the Jewish tradition for God. The divine name, spelt with the consonants JHWH, was probably pronounced "Yahweh"; however, it came to be considered too holy to pronounce at all, and the Masoretic vowel-signs for the word Adonai were attached to the consonants. This was a signal for the reader to say "Adonai" rather than "Yahweh" when reading aloud. The convention was misunderstood by some (though not all) of the reformers, who combined the consonants of JHWH and the vowels of Adonai to create the quite novel word Jehovah. In recent years we have seen the commendable reprobation of the use of the term Yahweh in Catholic Bibles and texts by Pope Benedict XVI.

Our antiphon, then, identifies Christ very directly with the God of the Old Testament, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and gave him the Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20).

The phrase 'domus Israel', 'house of Israel'; is used many, many times in the Old Testamen as a name for the Hebrew people, and also a few times in the New Testament.

The phrase 'in brachio extento', 'with outstretched arm' is characteristic of the Book of Deuteronomy in describing God's mighty act of delivering Israel from bondage to the Egyptians; cf. Deut. 26:8, 'et eduxit nos de Aegypto in manu forti, et brachio extento.'

The O-Antiphons therefore begin by associating Christ with God in Creation: he is the Sapientia, Wisdom, who was with God and was God in the beginning, without whom nothing was made; in other words, with the God of Genesis.

Then they move on to associating him with the God of the Exodus, which in the NewTestament itself is regarded as a type of Christ's redeeming passion (cf. Luke 9:30-31, the Transfiguration: 'And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his Exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.')

Several more of the antiphons compare the redemption wrought by Christ with deliverance from situations of imprisonment or slavery mentioned in the Old Testament. Curiously, none mentions the Exile in Babylon, which is alluded to so plainly in the first verse of our Latin hymn:

Veni, veni, Emmanuel,
captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exilio,
privatus Dei Filio.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,Redeem thy captive Israel,That into exile drear is gone,Far from the face of God's dear Son.
That happy and creative allusion is down to the hymnographer.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

O Sapientia

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

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High, and reachest from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

The Antiphon is based on Wisdom 8:1, "Attingit ergo a fine usque ad finem fortiter, Et disponit omnia suaviter."

Wisdom, in the Old Testament "is more than a mere quality and tends increasingly to become a hypostasis, so especially in Prov. 8 and Wisd. 7.22 ff " (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church - ODCC).

Proverbs 8:12 ff runs:
"Ego sapientia, habito in consilio, et eruditus intersum cogitationibus . . . Meum est consilium, et aequitatis; Mea est prudentia, mea est fortitudo. Per me reges regnant . . ." [Making the link between Sapientia and Prudentia].

Wisdom 7:22 ff. runs:
"Est enim in illa [i.e. in Sapientia] spiritus intelligentiae, sanctus,
Unicus, multiplex, subtilis, disertus, mobilis,
Incoinquinatus, certus, suavis, amans bonum, acutus,
Quem nihil vetat, benefaciens,
Humanus, benignus, stabilis, certus, securus,
Omnem habens virtutem, omnia prospiciens,
Et qui capiat omnes spiritus,
Intelligibilis, mundus, subtilis."

"In the New Testament Divine Wisdom is incarnate in Christ, who St Paul calls 'the wisdom of God' (I Cor 1:24)" [ODCC]. The relevant passage is as follows:

I Corinthians, 1:23 ff,
Nos autem praedicamus Christum crucifixum: Iudaeis quidem scandalum, gentibus autem stultitiam, ipsis autem vocatis Iudaeis, atque Graecis Christum Dei virtutem, et Dei sapientiam: quia quod stultum est Dei, sapientius est hominibus: et quod infirmum est Dei, fortius est hominibus.
"But we preach Christ crucified: to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks, Christ the Power ('Virtue') of God and the Wisdom of God; because what is foolish of God, is wiser than men; and what is weak of God, is stronger than men."

"Amongst the Fathers most use 'Wisdom' as a synonym for the Incarnate Word or Logos" (ODCC).

Unknown Artist. Christ Pantocrator. Deisis. Naos tis Agias tou Theou Sofias (Church of the Holy Wisdom of God). Istanbul (Turkey). 1261

The Holy Wisdom
Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 1261


The phrase "suaviter fortiter" occurs in Boethius De Consolatione and has been regarded as the only definite reference to the scriptures and/or the Christian liturgy in that work. But see James Shiel's interesting article "fortiter suaviter" which can be found online here.

The abstract of the article is as follows:
F o r t i t e r s u a v i t e r
by James Shiel

A happy phrase used by Lady Philosophy in Boethius' Consolation has often been quoted as a meagre but significant indication of Christian belief. But it seems rather to be the normal expression of a Neoplatonic sentiment about the combination of power and effortlessness in divine action. And the pleasure expressed by Boethius over the verbal felicity simply echoes the emphasis placed on appropriate dignity of idiom in Eleatic and Platonic descriptions of the divine.

"It is therefore the supreme goodness which rules all things strongly and orders them sweetly." ashiel.html - fn1[1]

This sentence occurs at a pivotal point in Boethius' dialogue with Lady Philosophy. Their discussion had started with his complaint about the injustice of his being imprisoned and condemned as if blind Fortune ruled the universe. The Lady gradually steers him through arguments about the instability and illusion of what men generally regard as good, such as wealth, power, esteem. The prisoner at last comes to fasten firmly on to one abiding conviction, that, despite the bitter appearances to the contrary, a supreme goodness coordinates all things, including the vagaries of Fate. From that central stance the dialogue can go on to explain the nature of Providence, its control over Fate, its compatibility with human free-will, its rewarding of moral effort and prayer.

A Christian version of the crucial sentence has been noted in the Latin church liturgy, in an Advent antiphon with a memorable plain-chant tune. I translate it from the Liber Usualis (a more complete text than that given in Bieler's edition of the Consolatio):
O Wisdom who have come from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end strongly, sweetly, and disposing all things, come to teach us the way of prudence." ashiel.html - fn2[2] 

The antiphon is evidently based on the Vulgate Book of Wisdom, the Sapientia Salamonis (8,1) ashiel.html - fn3[3], which in turn was a close translation from the Greek Septuagint: "Wisdom stretches from end to end strongly and disposes all things gently." ashiel.html - fn4[4]


Boethius in prison communes with Lady Philosophy