O Virgo Virginum

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of the best-known Advent hymns still sung today.  Although many hymnals print it with about four verses, a few (such as ours) include seven verses, drawn from a detail of liturgical minutia which might otherwise be lost to the ages.

Each verse of this hymn was originally an antiphon used with the Magnificat (Mary’s Song) in Evening Prayer on the last seven evenings before Christmas Eve.  The Prayer Book tradition has not preserved the use of antiphons with the Psalms or Canticles of the Daily Office (with one modern exception) due to interest in simplicity – too many variable parts of the liturgy would make the liturgy books too complex for people to use without unnecessarily extensive training.

These antiphons are collectively referred to as the O Antiphons because they each begin by addressing Christ:

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonia (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Rod of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of Nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O God-with-us)

Traditionally, they would be used in the above order on December 17th through 23rd.

But medieval liturgical practice was not monolithic; there was regional variation.  And one such variant was found in England.  Several additional “O Antiphons” can be found scattered throughout 1st millennium English liturgical manuscripts, but one survived through the centuries all the way until the Reformation: O Virgo Virginum (O Virgin of Virgins).  Translated into English, this Antiphon reads

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

Unlike the other antiphons, which use an Old Testament image as a picture of Jesus, this one uses Old Testament language (“daughters of Jerusalem…”) as a picture of Mary.  This 8th antiphon was used on December 23rd, bumping the other seven back an evening to start on the 16th.

To my knowledge this eighth antiphon has never been adapted to fit the hymn O come O come Emmanual, so with a little online crowdsourcing help to make the poetry more manageable, I arranged this eighth verse:

O Virgin great! How shall this be?
For none before nor hence were like to thee;
Why, Salem’s daughters, marvel ye?
Behold, a heav’nly mystery!

Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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1 Response to O Virgo Virginum

  1. Pingback: O Sapientia begins – The Saint Aelfric Customary

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