O Adona&iuml

As a youngster, the version of this antiphon found in the Advent carol ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, always intrigued me. What was this strange word, sung as ‘add-on-ay-eye’? It was several years before I discovered the answer to this question, buried in the foreword of my Revised Standard Version of the Bible. There it was explained why in the Old Testament, the word ‘Lord’ was frequently printed in all capital letters (in ‘caps & small caps’ to be precise), and occasionally in the expression ‘Lord God’ the word ‘God’ was capitalized instead. This tradition, still followed in many of today’s Bibles, dates back many centuries, or even millennia.

When printed in capitals in this way the word ‘LORD’ represents the occurrence in the Bible of the name of God. In the original Hebrew this is indicated by four consonants (written Hebrew having no letters for the vowels), and variously represented in our own alphabet, perhaps most commonly by the letters I, H, V, and H. But in ancient times this name had already come to be considered too holy to actually speak, and instead the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’ was spoken aloud. And that Hebrew word is Adonaï.

This then, is the meaning of the verse of the carol, and the meaning of the Advent antiphon. Each of the antiphons is addressed to Jesus: and in addressing Jesus as Adonaï we implicitly declare our belief in his divinity: that the baby born in Bethlehem is indeed the incarnation of the eternal God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, declaring to him his existence and his very name, the divine ‘I AM’. And the salvation that came to the Hebrew slaves, the downtrodden people in Egypt, that salvation is offered to all God’s people right now.

O come, O come, Adonaï!

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JCFpeterpi - Peter GrossSimon KershawRichard AshbyFather Ron Smith Recent comment authors
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peterpi - Peter Gross
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peterpi - Peter Gross

In USA churches (almost exclusively in TEC), I have sung “O Come, O Come, Emanuel” numerous times — but had never sung a verse with “Adonai” in it. I want to thank Mr. Kershaw for his reflection. I’ve always heard “Adonai” pronounced by my fellow Jews in synagogues and elsewhere as “Ah-doh-nigh”. The Tetragrammaton (YHVH) is considered so holy, and has been so for so long, that these days, I would speculate, no Jew knows how to properly pronounce it — or even thinks of trying. The name is so holy that for we mere humans, imperfect as we are,… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
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A timely reminder, Simon, of the old English Tradition of The Great ‘O’s. I hope there are still a few Daily Mass churches in the Communion where these attributions of the titles of Jesus are still acclaimed during this final week of Advent.

Jesus as Wisdom; Lord; Root of Jess; Key of David; Rising Sun; King of the Nations; and Emmanuel; is re-affirmed by the Church before the Great Feast of Christ’s Incarnation. Even so, Come Lord Jesus!

Simon Kershaw
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Thanks Peter for adding a bit more of the history of the Tetragrammaton that I omitted for reasons of space and coherence. As for the hymn, there are two commonly-used translations into English. One tradition is the translation of John Mason Neale, the great 19th-century hymnwriter and translator. This version found its way, after several revisions, into the hymnbook ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ and thence into wide usage across the Anglican Communion and elsewhere. A new translation was made by Thomas Lacey for the 1906 ‘English Hymnal’, edited by Percy Dearmer and with music edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Possibly… Read more »

Simon Kershaw
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Re the usage of the ‘O’ antiphons. These are not intended, of course, for use at the daily eucharist, though they might be considered appropriate then. Rather the 7 verses are the antiphons to be used with the Magnificat at vespers (and thence Evensong) on the last 7 days before the first Vespers or Evensong of Christmas. So they are properly used at Evening Prayer from 17 December to 23 December. (Evening Prayer on the 24th is the first Evening Prayer of Christmas Day.) Equally, they are not just an ‘old English tradition’, being shared with other Churches of the… Read more »

Richard Ashby
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Richard Ashby

The interesting thing about O Sapientia is that the phrase appears in the Calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Since there is no explanation one must assume that those who compiled the calendar must have expected that those who used it knew what was meant and were still using the Advent Antiphons after all the changes of the previous century. One can further assume that antiphons were in common use across the year (otherwise why indicate where these ones began?) at least in places where such things remained important, such as Cathedrals and University Chapels (‘in choirs and… Read more »

Simon Kershaw
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I’m not sure it is a valid assumption that the antiphons had remained in use. The ‘Black Letter’ days were restored to the BCP calendar in 1561 — i.e. the dates in the calendar which appear just as names, but with no liturgical material proper to them (Collect, Epistle and Gospel, or readings for Morning and Evening Prayer). The words ‘O Sapientia’ were restored as part of that 1561 revision. These dates appear to have been part of the folk memory, many of them representing the dates of local fairs for example, and were inlcuded for that reason. Similarly the… Read more »

peterpi - Peter Gross
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peterpi - Peter Gross

Simon Kershaw on Monday, 19 December 2011 at 2:21pm GMT, thank you for your explanation of the two versions of “O Come, O Come …”. I’ve run across numerous references to HA&M. The Lacey, less so.

JCF
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JCF

@peterpi:

“In USA churches (almost exclusively in TEC), I have sung “O Come, O Come, Emanuel” numerous times — but had never sung a verse with “Adonai” in it.”

This is the usual translation (JM Neale) of “O Adonai”:

O come, O come, great Lord [Adonai] of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Amen! Come Lord Christ…