Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Great Antiphons...

In the Roman Rite the seven days leading up to Christmass Eve are greater ferias. The Office becomes more solemn, the antiphons at Lauds and the Hours are proper, and the Magnificat antiphon at Vespers takes on a fervent character, calling upon Christ with the many titles used of him in Scripture in a great and eager expectation of his coming. These are the beautiful O Antiphons, so-called because of their consistent use of that interjection. In the illustrious Use of Sarum there were eight of these O Antiphons, with the crowning antiphon used at Vespers on 23rd December being O Virgo Virginum, addressed to St Mary, the Mother of God. The significance of these antiphons is treblefold. Liturgically they are linked with the antiphons used at Vespers on Christmass, such as Levate capita vestra, which calls upon the people to lift up their heads as their redemption is at hand. O Virgo Virginum corresponds directly to the antiphon of the third Psalm at Christmass Vespers, Completi sunt dies Mariae, which cements one of the many exegetical connexions between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfilled in the person of Our Lady. The antiphons are sung at a time of evening, the very time that Christ was born in Bethlehem. The seventh antiphon, O Emmanuel, smooths over a significant personal connexion that I established between the Saxon poet Cynewulf and Bilbo's song in the House of Elrond about Eärendil the Mariner. The antiphon reads:

O Emmanuel, Rex et Legifer noster, expectatio gentium, et salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

Legifer is a curious word which means "law-bringer," or "law-giver." Etymologically it is related to such familiar latinate words as conifer (cone-bearer), crucifer (cross-bearer), signifer (standard-bearer), or, infamously, to Lucifer (light-bearer). In Bilbo's song about Eärendil he describes the Mariner as the Flammifer of Westernesse, or the flame-bearer of the West; the "flame" being the Silmaril containing the unsullied light that was before the Sun and Moon. Significantly, Eärendil is a type of St John the Baptist. At the end of the First Age he serves to herald, like St John, a great advent; the coming of the Valar to the aid of the Gnomes and Fathers of Men in their darkest hour. When Eärendil first rose shining in the West he was seen by the people of Middle-earth as a "star of high hope" (Gil-Estel). Those of you who are familiar with the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth may recall that Finrod distinguished between two types of hope; amdir, which corresponds to "looking up," having an expectation of good which, though uncertain, has some foundation in what is known; and estel, which is founded deeper, and corresponds to "trust." "It is not defeated," says Finrod, "by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being. If we are indeed the Eruhin, the Children of the One, then He will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves. This is the last foundation of Estel, which we keep even when we contemplate the End: of all His designs the issue must be for His Children's joy." I expect the first sight of Eärendil, a new star of heaven, to the people of Middle-earth came as a feeling of warmth and a solace amidst grief and suffering.

The name Eärendil had its uttermost origins in the Old English earendel, from the poem Crist by Cynewulf, and it signifies "radiance of the Dawn." If we are to understand Eärendil as a type of St John the Baptist then we have in Tolkien some of the most apposite seasonal reading this Advent. Earendel, being the keeper of the flame and the radiance of the Dawn, brings with him the good tidings of our Salvation and a light to illumine the world that grows chill.


  1. Very good point. Because I am not familiar with the original english text of The Lord of the rings, I was totally ignorant of that wonderful word "Flammifer". The most widespread spanis translation reads "luz flamígera de Oesternesse" (burning light of Westternesse). Obviously the translator managed well to maintain the latin flamm- but dropping out the -fer and the original meaning that Tolkien wanted.

  2. In spanish Tolkien is a good story-teller. In the glimpses of the original text that I discover here in your blog, he is a total genius.