by Wilfrid Jones
The “Great O Antiphons” which the Church has prescribed in the Roman Liturgy as the antiphons at the Magnificat for the second phase of Advent beginning on the 17th of December and culminating on the 23rd, find their origins before the 9th Century (Carroll. “L’Avent Liturgique”, Revue Bénédictine. 1905.), appearing in the work of Cynewolf (Boenig. Anglo-Saxon Spirituality. 2000.) Each begins with an invocation to Christ under one of his scriptural titles, “Widsom” (Proverbs 1:20), “Lord” (Exodus 3:15, “יְהוָ֞ה”), “Root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:10), “Key of David” (Isaiah 22:22), “Rising Sun” (Luke 1:78), “King of Nations” (in Latin rendered “Rex gentium”, but in the Koine greek reading “ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν αἰώνων”, that is “king of the ages”. Revelation 15:3), “God with us” (“עִמָּ֫נוּאֵ֫ל”, a compound proper noun from “עִם”, “with”, and “אֵל”, “God”, transliterated as “Emmanuel”).
Though Martin Connell (Connell. Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year Vol. 1. 2006.) disputes whether or not the antiphons were intentionally ordered to do so, when one takes the initial letter of these Latin titles in retrograde order, it forms an acrostic of “Ero Cras”, “tomorrow I will be” (often read as “I will come tomorrow”). Granted, the fact that some Medieval Breviaries include other Antiphons beginning with the invocation “O” for the feasts of Thomas the Apostle (“O Thoma Dydimae”) and various other “O” antiphons on one or other day, does lend strength to Connell’s doubts. Certain medieval breviaries maintain more O antiphons than the Roman Rite, a tradition preserved by the Norbertine Use, who have “O Virgo Virginum” on the 23rd and so begin their recitation of the antiphons on the 16th of December rather than the 17th. The Parisian Breviary had “O sancte sanctorum” on the 22nd and “O pastor Israel” on the 23rd. H. T. Henry reports another Medieval Breviary which contains no fewer than 12 O Antiphons (Henry. “O Antiphons”, The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913). One could just about believe the Norbertines having a translation of “Truth tomorrow” or “truly tomorrow” (tenuous translations of “Vero cras”) only as erroneous as translating “ero cras” as I “tomorrow I will come” as an acrostic, but the idea that the Parisians would have “PSEROCRAS” and the breviary quoted by Henry would have the acrostic “RMHEROCRAS” takes the idea of an acrostic being deliberate beyond the bounds of possibility. Perhaps some people went in for the acrostic notion and some people did not, but Connell seems fairly compelling. Nevertheless, the Ero Cras idea is a nice one and worth keeping as a happy coincidence.
Thus it is something of a shame that the order has not been maintained consistently within the reformed liturgy. The Order of the Antiphons is faithfully preserved in the Divine Office, each day having the same antiphon as it had before the reforms and thus maintaining not only the acrostic but also the heightening tension provided by the traditional order (The Divine Office Vl I. 1974. 124, 131, 138, 145, 153, 160, 168 corresponds exactly with The Antiphonale Romanum. Ed. the monks of Solesmes. 1934. 234-237.). However, they are referenced in the Gospel Acclamations in the mass of the day from the 17th to the 23rd of December in the Reformed Lectionary and there are some discrepancies in the order. Thus some of the Gospel Acclamations during that period do not match the Magnificat Antiphons for the day. The Lectionary. (1981) is at variance with The Divine Office on the 21st December (p. 87) and 23rd December (p. 91) and has an Acclamation corresponding to the Magnificat Antiphon included only as an alternative for the 20th December (p. 84, and 22nd December (p. 89).
I propose three possibilities as to why the reformers decided upon this bizarre ordering.
The first is that the Reformers, being mired in an ideology of resourcement, saw that the ERO CRAS acrostic was nothing more than a coincidence and wanted to disassociate the O Antiphons from it. This seems very unlikely. Firstly, why bother? Secondly, if one were going to change the order in the Mass propers for that reason, why would one not change it in the Divine Office and maintain consistency over the course of the day? It is possible that the reformers were ordering the antiphons according to a source of which I am unaware, but even so, presumably they would have changed the Divine Office in line with their findings.
The second is that the reformers were incompetent. Certainly the early days of the reform had the air of a shambles with retractions and errata being issued what must have seemed every other day. In that situation though, what is one more correction?
The third is more problematic. Certain reformers had a conceptualization of the liturgy with which I, mired as I am in the ideology of the New Liturgical Movement, find hard to sympathize. It is expressed clearly by Archbishop Pierro Marini, formerly secretary to Archbishop Annibale Bugnini who headed the committee responsible for implementing the Council’s liturgical reforms, who opposed big bad “rubricism”, which he believes “hid the same spirit which had animated them” with cuddly “freedom” which “safeguards an equilibrium and rediscovers the spiritual sense of the liturgy” (Marini. Cérémoniare des Papes. 2007. p. 24) . Now, I oppose the rubricism Pierro Marini describes, but I believe it paints a false picture. I believe that promoting an external reverence in the Liturgy, even for the Liturgy, will bring about an internal devotion in the manner described by the Peripatetic axiom “Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu” (Aquinas. De veritate. q. 2 a. 3 arg. 19). I believe that what may be best understood as the deliberate instigation of liturgical chaos, exemplified in this example, was a desire for a greater degree of freedom from the rubrics. The slippery slope of ‘the present situation is not sensible, so let’s simply do something we think is sensible’ to ‘the situation with the liturgical books is irrelevant, let’s do what we want’ is a short one. Is it too much to suggest that it was always intended that we should find ourselves at its foot?
Quid ero cras is perhaps the question we were always meant to ask with regards to the liturgy. “What will be tomorrow”? Perhaps even from immediately after the Council it was always meant to be up to as to answer that.
With thanks to Msgr Mark Crisp.
Wilfrid Jones is a graduate research student in the Department of Theology and Religions at the University of Birmingham having studied music as an undergraduate at New College, Oxford. He sits on the committee of the JHNILM and his research interest is Liturgical Music after the Second Vatican Council. This article is an expansion of a footnote in the Introduction to his thesis which will be completed in 2015.
It should be noted that blog posts represent the views of their author and do not represent those of the JHNILM or, necessarily, anyone else associated with it.