Deep Advent: O Sapientia

This coming Sunday, 16th December, is a Black Letter day in the BCP 1662 Calendar: O Sapientia, the first of the Advent antiphonsIts inclusion in the Calendar, together with many other Black Letter days, dates to 1561.  What is the significance of this day being commemorated in the Prayer Book Calendar?

In face of Puritan critiques of the Black Letter days, the bishops of the Church of England at the Restoration defended their inclusion in the Calendar:

[they] are left in the Calendar, not that they should be so [as red letter days] kept as holy days, but they are useful for the preservation of their memories and for other reasons, as for leases, law days, etc.

Let us begin with the second of these reasons.  The Black Letter days mark time.  The inclusion of O Sapientia in the Calendar reminds us that we are now in the depths of Advent.  Advent is quickly passing.  The festive season draws nigh.  O Sapientia, then, is a call to the Church to sustain the spirit of Advent, embodied in the collect prayed each day in this season. With only nine days until Christmas Day, we are called by O Sapientia to recognise afresh the gift of Advent.

When we arrive at O Sapientia in the Calendar, we are told - in the words of John Mason Neale, in his sermons on the Black Letter days - that "The Lord is now very nigh at hand".  At a stage when festive preparations can intensify, O Sapientia reminds us that we are yet in the days of Advent: indeed, that we are entering 'deep Advent'.

Of course, the BCP makes no provision for the liturgical use of the Advent antiphons.  They were one of those features of the daily office on Cranmer's mind when he wrote 'Concerning the Service of the Church':

But these many years passed, this godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers hath been so altered, broken, and neglected ... with multitude of Responds, Verses ...

The noble simplicity of BCP Evensong does not easily or neatly embrace the liturgical use of the Advent antiphons.  As the bishops said, Black Letter days are not in the Calendar "that they should be so kept as holy days".  That said, the inclusion of O Sapientia certainly suggests that this and the related prayers are worthy devotional material.

Here, then, is a basis for their use in that great Anglican Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel.  Similarly, with the widespread use of these antiphons in the Advent Processions.  The 'preservation of their memory' by the Black Letter day has allowed for their devotional use in a much more significant manner than their original liturgical use.  It is another expression of a High Church populism, ensuring that a rich liturgical source is used in such a way as to grasp and shape the cultural imagination.

One other point might be considered regarding the BCP Calendar and O Sapientia.  The use of the Sarum date, rather than the 17th used elsewhere in the Latin West, draws us to reflect on place and culture - on how Advent was observed and the festive season prepared for in a particular landscape and cultural experience.  It is a reminder that the reformed ecclesia Anglicana and the Book of Common Prayer stand in continuity with this observance of Advent and these festive preparations; that the Anglican patrimony values this landscape and cultural experience as providing a means of being oriented to both the Lord's Advent and His Incarnation.

There is, then, great richness in the Black Letter day of O Sapientia, marking our entry into deep Advent, bringing us to avail of the devotions traditionally associated with this season, reminding us of how Advent - rather than merely a name for four Sundays of the year - is a season to be experienced.

(The picture is of a 13th century English liturgical calendar: note that O Sapientia is marked for the 16th, not 17th.)


  1. I do love it when the O Antiphons come round each year, but I have to disagree with "The noble simplicity of BCP Evensong does not easily or neatly embrace the liturgical use of the Advent antiphons." is a handy resource--just chant the Magnificat in Mode II with the day's antiphon before and after, what could be easier or nobler?

    Of course I'm the sort of person who ardently believes we sorely need a little office book that has all the proper psalm & canticle & Venite antiphons for the whole year.

    1. I think the use of the Advent Antiphons in Roman Vespers must inevitably be different to any use in Anglican Evensong, principally because of the different place the Magnificat has in Vespers. The Antiphons make sense in Vespers as the Magnificat is the culmination of the Office. In Evensong it has a different place and role, and I am not convinced that the Advent Antiphons 'work' in this context - after all, another Gospel canticle follows, without antiphons. There is also a sense that in Vespers one very short reading from Scripture gives 'space' for the Advent Antiphons - de facto, another short Scripture reading. At Evensong, of course, this is not the case, with two weighty Scripture readings.

      I obviously do not think that the BCP offices requires the various antiphons throughout the year. Cranmer's intention does, I think, hold - the offices as a means of meditating on Holy Scripture.

      The point of the blog was to emphasise the rationale and coherence of O Sapientia as a Black Letter day, not condemn those with a different practice. Either way, we both value the Advent Antiphons and their meaning.

    2. Interesting. My lectionary (ECUSA - BCP1979) has three readings per day, and generally I read two in the morning and one in the evening. I also use a patristic reading for Morning Prayer. So the result is that my Evening Prayer is virtually half the length of Morning Prayer, and that the Magnificat can be at the heart of it very much as you describe. Yes, for a public service of Evening Prayer we will have two readings, but I find that the Magnificat can still be the heart, tying together the two readings (heralding the words of the New Covenant); in such cases we generally use the traditional Compline antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis, which carries the dramatic arc into its denouement. When I am praying the office by myself at home, the Nunc Dimittis usually features in EP only on feasts--but then there is a richer store of the Church's traditional sentences and melodies I wouldn't want to miss!

      Of course you're quite right that the Anglican prayer book tradition has never really allowed for or encouraged the use of antiphons with the Gospel canticles (although the chant settings in ECUSA's Hymnal 1982 feature generic and unchanging antiphons as an integral part).

      But it's a pity. As you say, the antiphons contain depths of seasonal meeting. I find these clues of meaning as useful for opening up the heart to receiving more from the longer passages of Holy Scripture the Cranmerian tradition sets before us as for anything else. In general, I'd say that the more seasonal "clues" we have, the better. I even find that if I am truly thinking "Advent" throughout the Venite, there will be something new for me to appreciate in each verse of that psalm.

    3. Many thanks for your response. As I have said, I am not condemning the use of the Advent antiphons by others - I am seeking to illustrate the coherence of the Cranmerian approach. In that approach, the Magnificat and Nunc at Evensong have a different function to the use of the Magnificat in Vespers.

      Regarding the use of antiphons at other times of the year, in the seasons after Epiphany and after Trinity, they tend to be generic, and I am not sure they can significantly aid our reading of Scripture or praying of the Psalms. In the seasons - such as Advent - my fear is that they then add too much, detracting from the reading of Scripture.

      In a rite such as Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours, this is not the case, as there is nothing like the same focus on the reading of Scripture as in the Cranmerian offices. Antiphons etc thus work well in that context.

      This is why, in summary, O Sapientia appears as a Black Letter day in the BCP Calendar: recognising its devotional value, but not allowing it to produce potential imbalance in Cranmerian Evensong.

      Of course, the main is that we are praying the Office - in any format!

  2. Why couldn't one sing the Mag antiphons either right before the opening sentences, or in place of them, or else where the "Anthem" goes, anthem being derived from "Antiphon" anyway? Especially on Feasts and other important days like these, this would seem useful and edifying, if we don't want lose those "babies with the bathwater". There's no need to compel or forbid any of this, of course, and no need to get too fussy. But I must confess a fondness for the little chants that accompany the Latin Rite, for many of them are absolute jewels, and the Mag antiphons especially aren't usually that difficult to sing. I use the minor Propers for the Communion - well, the Introits and Communions anyway - to great effect and edification with the 8 to 15 Episcopal students I play for on Sunday evenings. In case you're wondering, I do sing them in English. I wonder if the Reformers would have been so quick to abandon the antiphons if they'd been sung in the vernacular all those years rather than in Latin.

    1. That is a useful idea, regarding the Magnificant Advent antiphons being read where an anthem is sung, according to the rubrics. This, of course, is akin to John Mason Neale's approach, writing the antiphons in hymn version.

      I entirely agree with your statement that "There's no need to compel or forbid any of this". My concern was to show the coherence of the Cranmerian offices and of O Sapientia as a Black Letter day.


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