The Great O Antiphons – O Virgo virginum

The Great O Antiphons were traditionally sung before and after the Magnificat at Evensong starting on December 17.They are most familiar to us as they were paraphrased as the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

The reflections are a gift from the Reverend Canon Leonel L. Mitchell, Th.D. He is the retired professor of liturgics at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. James, South Bend, IN.


O Virgo virginum

O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? For neither before you was any seen like you, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me? The thing which you behold is a mystery.

The Sarum Breviary, which was used in England until 1549, contained an eighth antiphon, one addressed to the Virgin Mary. They began the sequence on December 16 and were a day ahead of the Roman (and now traditional) use. Its focus is that of Sunday’s propers, the mystery of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah. I thought this was a good way to conclude this series on the morning of December 24. As a thought for today I offer this hymn (Hymn 73, The Hymnal 1982), translated from a Greek hymn for Christmas Eve.

The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks; when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes

Not, as of old, a little child, to bear, and fight, and die, but crowned with glory like the sun that lights the morning sky.

The King shall come when morning dawns and earth’s dark night is past; O haste the rising of that morn, the day that e’er shall last;

and let the endless bliss begin, by weary saints foretold, when right shall triumph over wrong, and truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns and light and beauty brings: Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people pray, come quickly, King of kings.

Greek; tr. John Brownlie (1859–1925), alt.