The Anglo Saxon O Antiphons

I wanted to give you a Christmas Eve post of mine, but in looking around, I find I haven’t written one, and I have no time to do so now. So we go back to one of my favorite bloggers, “A Clerk of Oxford” who did a wonderful job of explaining the Anglo-Saxon versions of the O Antiphons and how they relate to the seasons. Enjoy

The Trinity, surrounded by angels with multi-coloured wings
(from the Grimbald Gospels, made in Canterbury in the 11th century, BL Add. 34890, f. 114v)

A Clerk of Oxford always manages to give us an appreciation of how much we owe to the Anglo-Saxons. Many of us who are Anglophone Christians are likely aware of the O Antiphons, which we share with the Catholics, but how many of us know that there are Anglo Saxon versions of them. There are, and they are quite beautiful, and echo down in our liturgies as well. Here is one she calls O Beautiful Trinity and you really should read her article, I’m simply pulling her translation here, and the article is fascinating.

O beautiful, plenteous in honours,
high and holy, heavenly Trinity
blessed far abroad across the spacious plains,
who by right speech-bearers,
wretched earth-dwellers, should supremely praise
with all their power, now God, true to his pledge,
has revealed a Saviour to us, that we may know him.
And so the ones swift in action, endowed with glory,
that truth-fast race of seraphim
and the angels above, ever praising,
sing with untiring strength
on high with resounding voices,
most beautifully far and near. They have
a special office with the King: to them Christ granted
that they might enjoy his presence with their eyes,
forever without end, radiantly adorned,
worship the Ruler afar and wide,
and with their wings guard the face
of the Lord almighty, eternal God,
and eagerly throng around the prince’s throne,
whichever of them can swoop in flight
nearest to our Saviour in those courts of peace.
They adore the Beloved One, and within the light
speak these words to him, and worship
the noble originator of all created things:
‘Holy are you, holy, Prince of the high angels,
true Lord of Victories, forever are you holy,
Lord of Lords! Your glory will remain eternally
on earth among mortals in every age,
honoured far and wide. You are the God of hosts,
for you have filled earth and heaven
with your glory, Shelter of warriors,
Helm of all creatures. Eternal salvation
be to you on high, and on earth praise,
bright among men. Dearly blessed are you,
who come in the name of the Lord to the multitudes,
to be a comfort to the lowly. To you be eternal praise
in the heights, forever without end.’

And here in a post called O Wondrous Exchange, she brings us the last section of these. Again, I’m merely giving you the translated poetry, its story is fascinating.

O, that is a wondrous exchange in the life of men!
that mankind’s merciful Creator
received from a maiden flesh unmarred,
and she had not known the love of a man,
nor did the Lord of Victory come
by the seed of a human on earth; but that was a more skilful art
than all earth-dwellers could comprehend
in its mystery, how he, glory of the skies,
high lord of the heavens, brought help
to the race of men through his mother’s womb.
And coming forth thus, the Saviour of the peoples
deals out his forgiveness every day
to help mankind, Lord of hosts.
And so we, eager for glory, praise him
devotedly in deeds and words. That is high wisdom
in every person who has understanding,
ever to most often and most intently
and most eagerly praise God.
He will grant him the reward of grace,
the holy Saviour himself,
even in that homeland where he never before came,
in the joy of the land of the living,
where he will dwell, blessed, from thenceforth,
live forever without end. Amen.

How glorious these are, even in translation, how wonderful they must have seemed a thousand years ago, in the language of the people. Then at the very end is a promise in a wonderful muddle of pronouns. Let’s let the Clerk explain and then it follows.

This individual with whom the poem closes is anyone who chooses to gather up the powers of their mind, to reflect upon the mysterious ‘exchange’ of human flesh and holy spirit, and – here at the end of the poem – to hold in memory all that has come before. By doing so this ‘he’ (who is any of us) comes to an eternal joy which is expressed, oddly but rather beautifully, in a closing muddle of pronouns:

He him þære lisse lean forgildeð, 
se gehalgoda hælend sylfa, 
efne in þam eðle þær he ær ne cwom, 
in lifgendra londes wynne, 
þær he gesælig siþþan eardað, 
ealne widan feorh wunað butan ende. 

He will grant him the reward of grace,
the holy Saviour himself,

even in that homeland where he never came before,
in the joy of the land of the living,
where he will dwell, blessed, from thenceforth,
live forever without end.

Who is ‘he’ here? Sometimes clearly Christ, and sometimes the mindful man, but the last, at least, might well be both. Perhaps they become one in that strange place, a final wonder from a poem full of marvels: a land where humans have never yet been, but which is their true home.

Have a wondrous Christmas week.

About Neo
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

4 Responses to The Anglo Saxon O Antiphons

  1. audremyers says:

    Beautiful, Neo; simply beautiful.

    A very merry and joy-filled Christmas to you, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Christmas and its Symbols – The Portly Politico

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