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 The Body of Christ; The Blood of Christ:
Theology, History, and Praxis

by Joyce Stolberg

Many of us older Catholics have, within our lifetime, left the secure land of splendid, solemn Tridentine liturgical worship, having grown up receiving Jesus Christ -- Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity -- under the appearances of bread only. We welcomed the surprise return of the ancient privilege of receiving Holy Communion under both species. Younger Catholics may have matured in the Faith experiencing Communion under both species as the norm. This presentation provides a brief overview of both the understanding and the practical aspects of the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful from the time of the earliest Christians until the present day. Perhaps the principle of "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi" resonates most luminously in relation to our praxis surrounding the reception of Holy Communion.

Early History

Early Christians expected to receive both the Body and Blood of Christ at Eucharistic celebrations. "From the first days of the Church's celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion consisted of the reception of both species in fulfillment of the Lord's command: "take and eat . . . take and drink" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 17). In the early Church at Jerusalem the faithful received Communion at the "Breaking of the Bread" and reserved the Body of Christ in their homes to receive Communion every day. (Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart... Acts 2:46, Catholic Encyclopedia). St. Paul retells the narrative of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor. 11:23-27)

In Chapter 66 of Justin Martyr's First Apology, he describes the change (in later ages explained to be transubstantiation) which occurs on the altar: "For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Saviour was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus" (First Apology 66:1-20 A.D. 148). No theology of concomitance was needed or developed, and all participants clearly understood that they were receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed: "When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost." (51)

Thus the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds was the norm for more than a millennium of Catholic liturgical practice, although infants were communicated with the precious blood only and the sick who remained in their homes communicated under the species of bread only. Yet the rites, while authentic, grew diverse and unification with reform was needed.

Medieval Practices

Towards the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne who had united much of Europe politically, took great interest in the Church's liturgy. He decreed that the Roman rite of Mass, embellished by some Galician elements, would be used throughout his domains and he worked with the pope to secure liturgical reform. Until either sometime in the twelfth century (Reception of the Eucharist Under Two Species by Mark E. Welding) or the 15th century, when prohibited by the Council of Constance in 1415 (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 18) our ancestors in the Faith continued to experience the reception of Holy Communion under both species. There are minor disagreements in regard to the timing of the discontinuation of offering the chalice to the lay faithful among several references researched and cited. Perhaps the practice diminished gradually in different regions of the Latin Rite Church. It may be stated as a general fact, that down to the twelfth century, in the West as well as in the East, public Communion in the churches was ordinarily administered and received under both kinds, although it was administered to infants under the form of wine only, and taken home for the sick under the form of bread only. Reception of Communion under both species has continued unbroken to the present time among the Eastern rite churches.

What happened, then, to cause such a dramatic shift in practice within the relatively narrow span of about a century or two during the High Middle Ages in Europe? What confluences of theological development, liturgical praxis, popular piety, and pressures of practical necessity combined to create the perfect storm of relatively rapid change?

A thorough exploration of all these factors would generate an endless thesis; only the highlights are presented here. Beginning in the early middle ages and influenced by the writings of St. Paschasius Radbertus, (abbot, c 800-865) including "De corpore et sanguine Domini", (Catholic Encyclopedia Online) an inaccurate overemphasis was placed on equating the Sacred Species with the physical historical body--the flesh and bones--the carnal presence of Christ.  

"He supports his doctrine by the words of institution in their literal sense, and by the sixth chapter of John. He appealed also to marvelous stories of the visible appearances of the body and blood of Christ for the removal of doubts or the satisfaction of the pious desire of saints. The bread on the altar, he reports, was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child, and when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let his blood run into a cup!" (History of the Christian Church, Vol. IV, P. Schaff)707 

 Although this teaching was refuted, its deleterious effects endured; its implications led to a prolonged and pronounced decrease in frequency of reception of the Eucharist. Despite this trend, reception under both species continued until the middle ages as detailed above; this was justified by the doctrine of concomitance, and reception under both kinds was eventually prohibited by the Council of Constance in 1415 (Wedig). St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) (Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars, The Holy Eucharist) clarified the Eucharistic doctrines of transubstantiation, Real Presence, sacred species, and sacrament in the 13th century. He also developed beautiful texts to accompany devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. 

In liturgical practice and popular piety, the Mass, which was always a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary and a sacrificial meal, became seen more as a sacrifice and less as a meal. The elevation of the sacred Host for adoration became the action of the Mass most cherished by the laity. This action was made as prolonged, as highly visible, and as embellished as possible! Medieval piety and devotion to the Eucharist took the form of gazing lovingly at the Body of Christ, either at the Consecration of the Mass or in prolonged exposition, rather than through reception of Holy Communion. Actual reception of Communion became so infrequent that the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had to legislate the mandatory reception of Communion at least once a year. Ironically, an era of great faith became an age of rare and "sub una" (under one species) Communion.

European social conditions and overall climate underwent severe strain during the High Middle Ages, although these influences on the issue under discussion, namely the discontinuation of Communion under both species, remain somewhat nebulous. The historically warm climatic period which peaked around 1000 AD diminished and the climate gradually deteriorated into the "little ice age" which persisted through the 17th and even influenced climate into the 19th century. Europe saw crop failure, famine, and diseases such as plague, measles and smallpox, although the worst outbreak of the "Black Death" came in the mid 14th century, probably after the chalice was removed from lay participation in many areas. Though lacking a fully developed comprehension of the germ theory of disease, medieval Europeans intuitively understood that some illnesses could be communicated from person to person by invisible means. An increased separation between the hierarchy and the laity developed. What role any or all of these factors contributed to the discontinuance of the presentation of the chalice to the laity would present a research opportunity of its own.  

Renaissance, Protestant revolt, and the Council of Trent  

The Renaissance era brought the Protestant revolt: "reformers" including Luther, Calvin, and Hus reintroduced the chalice to their assemblies in protest against clericalism (Wedig). Protestant "reformers" also reintroduced Communion in the hand, a practice which had disappeared. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) vigorously refuted the theological and practical errors of Protestantism, reinforced and clarified Catholic doctrine and set liturgical practice in durable and replicable forms. Reception of the Precious Blood by the faithful was again prohibited, both in refutation of the errors of Protestantism and in an effort to affirm the doctrine of concomitance. The use of the Latin language and the reception of Communion under one species (sub una) would endure for another 400 years until the opening of Vatican II.  

The continuance of the Latin language in the liturgy may have been necessitated by the incomplete emergence of developing modern written vernacular language texts and Bibles in the 16th century. However, in the regulations surrounding the praxis of the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful, we see here a reversal of the principle of "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi". Of Trent we might rather say, "Lex Credendi, Lex Orandi" because the method of distributing Communion (as well as other aspects of the Mass) was specifically designed to firmly reinforce the theology concerning the Eucharist and to refute the errors of Protestantism. For example, in the 21st session the Council stated that Communion under either species is sufficient for salvation (Page 141). Therefore Communion under both species for lay persons was prohibited. Thus, the practice of receiving Communion under both species, which had been discontinued for practical reasons, was prohibited in the process of refuting heresy, and thus became lost for 400 more years. Children were not admitted to the reception of Communion until they reached an age when they could understand the basics of the nature of the sacrament (although this restraint began well before the Council of Trent). The Council of Trent did encourage frequent and even daily reception, even by the lay faithful, of Holy Communion while insisting on proper preparation and a clear conscience. Communion became more frequent for some time, but in subsequent centuries reception again became less frequent due largely to the influence of the false teachings of Jansenism.  

The 20th Century and Vatican Council II  

A re-exploration of praxis surrounding Holy Communion began long before the Second Vatican Council. The 20th century gave us two great popes who were strong proponents of more frequent reception of Holy Communion, Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII. Pope Pius X (d. 1914) not only lowered the age of reception of First Holy Communion from approximately 12 years of age to the age of seven (Quam Singulari, 1910) but also encouraged frequent and daily Holy Communion by all the faithful. 

The rules for frequent and daily Communion are laid down by the decree of the Congregation of the Council, "Sacra Tridentina Synodus" (20 Dec., 1905). (1) "Frequent and daily Communion. . . should be open to all the faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the holy table with a right and devout intention, can be lawfully hindered therefrom."

Pope Pius XII continued to make Holy Communion more accessible, primarily by changing the strict rules concerning the required fast prior to reception of Holy Communion. In his instruction of 1953, Pius XII issued regulations concerning the fast prior to reception of Communion at evening Masses: one need only refrain for three hours from solid food and alcoholic liquids, and one hour from non-alcoholic liquids: water does not break the fast. In Sacram Communionem, 1957, these instructions were extended to all Masses, including morning Masses. This law was applied to all the faithful everywhere. (The sick were exempt from fasting. The regulation was subsequently changed in the 1960s to require fasting for one hour only from all solids and liquids, excepting water and essential medicines.) The true purpose here was to make Holy Communion more accessible to everyone. Perhaps only those who had been required to abstain from everything, including a small sip of water, from the prior midnight in order to receive Communion could fully understand the welcome implications of this innovation. Pope Pius XII also proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, and instituted many other liturgical reforms, including the restoration of the solemn Holy Week liturgy, that paved the way for the work of Vatican Council II in reforming the liturgy.  

Elected to the papacy at an advanced age in 1958, Pope John XXIII was expected to be a "transition" or short-term Pope: he redefined the meaning of "transition". He quickly called a General Council on January 25, 1959, not to refute any major heresies, but rather to "open the windows and let in some fresh air". This Council, convened in four sessions between 1962 and 1965, was much more fully equipped with the benefit of historical knowledge concerning the Church's liturgy and praxis than our most highly educated ancestors were in previous ages. Pope John XXIII lived only through the first session. His short papacy was long enough for him to begin to oversee a far-reaching reform of the sacred liturgy. Pope Paul VI continued the Council.
Published in 1963, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document promulgated by Vatican Council II. It dealt comprehensively with many aspects of the liturgy: the reception of Holy Communion under both species is the primary issue under consideration here. It decreed as follows.

That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended.
The dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent remaining intact, communion under both kinds may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity, in cases to be determined by the Apostolic See, as, for instance, to the newly ordained in the Mass of their sacred ordination, to the newly professed in the Mass of their religious profession, and to the newly baptized in the Mass which follows their baptism. (No. 55.)

These limited occasions opened the door to the return of the reception of Holy Communion under both species for the laity within the Latin Church as directed by the bishops. During Vatican II, the bishops of the Church took a deep, sincere look at the liturgical practices of the earliest centuries of the Church, endeavoring to restore pristine rites and eliminate unnecessary and irrelevant accretions. Vatican II endeavored to achieve a "hermeneutic of continuity" with the intention of restoring liturgical practices to consistency with those used in the Church throughout most of history. The Council's bishops examined and revived legitimate practices that reached past the Council of Trent into all eras of Church history.

The Body and Blood of Christ

This permission has been greatly expanded in subsequent decrees and documents. In 1970 the Holy See approved for the United States the bishops’ Appendix to the General Instruction for the Dioceses of the United States, which gave permission for Communion under both kinds at weekday Masses (AGI 242:19). In accord with the instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship on Communion under both kinds (June 29, 1970), the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November, 1970, added the following cases:

Other members of the faithful present on the special occasions enumerated in no. 242 of the "General Instruction";
At funeral Masses and at Masses for a special family observance;
At Masses on days of special religious or civil significance for the people of the United States;
At Masses on Holy Thursday and at the Mass of the Easter Vigil, the norms of the instruction of June 29, 1970, being observed;
At weekday Masses.

On June 17, 1977, the Congregation of Sacraments and Divine Worship also approved the request of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to permit the optional practice of Communion in the hand. (Ibid. 240)

 At its meeting in November, 1978, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops further extended the occasions on which Holy Communion under both kinds might be given when it approved the motion that Holy Communion may be given under both kinds to the faithful at Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation if, in the judgment of the ordinary, Communion may be given in an orderly and reverent manner.     

It may seem counterintuitive here that Communion under both species was permitted at weekday Masses before being allowed at Sunday Masses. The operative words here are "orderly and reverent manner". Those of us who swelled the ranks of extraordinary ministers of Communion at that time can attest to the pragmatic logic of this apparent reversal of priorities. The extension of this privileged to Sunday Masses necessitated an intense recruiting and training effort to achieve the necessary complement of extraordinary ministers needed to facilitate the proper and orderly distribution of Communion. It was of prime importance that they be trained to serve in a manner that ensured the utmost care for the sacred species and fostered reverence among the faithful. The faithful also needed to be catechized to receive Communion properly.    

The Holy See extended this permission to most Masses in the U.S., when it approved the bishops’ directory, This Holy and Living Sacrifice: Directory for the Celebration and Reception of Communion under Both Kinds in 1985.

 And finally, far from being appropriate only in monasteries and convents, the law states:

"Communion under both kinds is to be desired in all celebrations of the Mass, though this is not possible in all cases"

Cases where it is not possible include large Masses in stadiums, outdoor places, hotel ballrooms and other facilities where proper care of the blood of Christ cannot be assured.  

The directives contained in the above-mentioned documents have now been superseded by the norms incorporated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 2003. The most relevant of these norms follow. 

11. Since, however, by reason of the sign value, sharing in both eucharistic species reflects more fully the sacred realities that the Liturgy signifies, the Church in her wisdom has made provisions in recent years so that more frequent eucharistic participation from both the sacred host and the chalice of salvation might be made possible for the laity in the Latin Church.

17. From the first days of the Church's celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion consisted of the reception of both species in fulfillment of the Lord's command to "take and eat . . . take and drink." The distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds was thus the norm for more than a millennium of Catholic liturgical practice.

21. The extension of the faculty for the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds does not represent a change in the Church's immemorial beliefs concerning the Holy Eucharist. Rather, today the Church finds it salutary to restore a practice, when appropriate, that for various reasons was not opportune when the Council of Trent was convened in 1545. But with the passing of time, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the reform of the Second Vatican Council has resulted in the restoration of a practice by which the faithful are again able to experience "a fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet." (33)

24. The General Instruction then indicates that the diocesan Bishop may lay down norms for the distribution of Communion under both kinds for his own diocese, which must be observed. . . . The diocesan Bishop also has the faculty to allow Communion under both kinds, whenever it seems appropriate to the priest to whom charge of a given community has been entrusted as [its] own pastor, provided that the faithful have been well instructed and there is no danger of the profanation of the Sacrament or that the rite would be difficult to carry out on account of the number of participants or for some other reason. (6)

In April of 2004, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament issued the instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum from the Vatican, reaffirming the direction of the Second Vatican Council for the whole Latin Rite Church.

[100.] So that the fullness of the sign may be made more clearly evident to the faithful in the course of the Eucharistic banquet, lay members of Christ’s faithful, too, are admitted to Communion under both kinds, in the cases set forth in the liturgical books, preceded and continually accompanied by proper catechesis regarding the dogmatic principles on this matter laid down by the Ecumenical Council of Trent.[186]

[101.] In order for Holy Communion under both kinds to be administered to the lay members of Christ’s faithful, due consideration should be given to the circumstances, as judged first of all by the diocesan Bishop. It is to be completely excluded where even a small danger exists of the sacred species being profaned. With a view to wider co-ordination, the Bishops’ Conferences should issue norms, once their decisions have received the recognitio of the Apostolic See through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, especially as regards “the manner of distributing Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds, and the faculty for its extension”.[188]

Confusion over the Indult

In 2002, the Catholic bishops asked for and were granted a special Indult that allowed the Eucharistic ministers to purify the sacred vessels: this was granted for a period of three years ending in 2005, at which time the Indult was not renewed. This Indult did not affect the distribution of Communion under both species directly, however it did affect to some extent the ease with which it could be accomplished. The priest, deacon, or instituted acolyte must purify all sacred vessels used for distribution of the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Christ either during Mass following the distribution of Communion or immediately following Mass. Extraordinary ministers are no longer allowed to perform this function.    

That was no Indult given to the United States either in 1970 or 1985 granting permission to administer Holy Communion under both species: the Apostolic See recognized the requests of the bishops as described above. That generated the series of instructions cited which progressively extended the application of this privilege to most Masses, and this was not specific to the United States or to the English-speaking countries. Perhaps the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took greater advantage of this recognition than did bishops' conferences of other regions.    

All instructions regarding Communion under both species have strongly emphasized that intense reverence and care must be given to the sacred species because they are the Body and Blood of Christ, that ministers must be extremely careful and very reverent, and that the faithful must be properly catechized, and must receive with consciousness of freedom from serious sin and with appropriate dispositions. These instructions also emphasize that each bishop must make decisions in this regard for his diocese, the pastor must ensure the appropriateness for his congregation, and the celebrant must ensure its appropriateness for the specific liturgy involved. Even though reception of Communion under both species at every Mass is the ideal, there are times when it may not be feasible in specific circumstances. The utilization of extraordinary ministers also must not give a false impression of clericalization of the laity. Everything must be accomplished with proper decorum and with great care given to the sacred species.  

Conclusions and Reflections    

While Reception of Communion under the form of bread only provides all the graces necessary for salvation, reception of Holy Communion under the forms of both bread and wine provide a fuller and more vibrant sign and reflects more fully the sacred realities signified in the liturgy. Drinking from the Cup of Salvation is a sign of God's saving love. Throughout the two millennia long course of Church history, partaking of the Eucharist "sub una" or under the species of bread only has been an aberration from the norm generated by physical necessity and by an effort to counteract the errors of Protestantism. Yet we must always remember that our bishops and priests are chosen and ordained by God to offer the sacred liturgy; their determination of the appropriate occasions for reception of Holy Communion under both species must be both honored and embraced.    

It has been said that the vibrant participation of the laity in the activity of the Church has been the "surprise" of Vatican II. Perhaps it should not have been surprising at all! Since Vatican II, the laity have moved from a stance of engaging in private devotions, mainly the rosary, while the priest said Mass to achieving a full active conscious participation in the liturgy and receiving Communion regularly and even daily under the fuller sign of both the Body and the Blood. With the laity thus infused with such abundance of divine grace, how could we expect anything less than an outpouring of energy and charisma into the building up of Christ's body the Church and the spreading of the Gospel?    

Some fervent elder Catholics have bemoaned the decrease in opportunity for Eucharistic adoration since Vatican Council II. Eucharistic adoration is a great privilege and a wonderful devotion; we should visit Jesus reserved in the Blessed Sacrament in our churches whenever possible, whether exposed in the monstrance or hidden in the tabernacle. Let us never forget, however, that Jesus instituted the Eucharist to be consumed in a proper manner, not primarily to be reserved and adored. If our expression of piety has shifted somewhat from engaging in Eucharistic adoration to participating in the sacred liturgy fully, actively, and consciously, and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ frequently and even daily, this is an emphasis to be celebrated, not regretted. By changing the Mass as it existed since the Council of Trent, Vatican Council II has reestablished continuity with the liturgy as our earliest Christian ancestors celebrated it.    

The Tridentine liturgy, with all its beauty and reverence, emphasized the vertical aspect of our worship: our stance in humility before God. Since Vatican II, the emphasis in our worship has perhaps swung too far in the direction of celebrating our horizontal relationships: who we are for one another as members of the body of Christ. Again, we affirm, "Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi". Achieving balance in our liturgy will unite our stance before God with our respect for all the members of Christ's body. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, we come to the end of our 40+ year journey through the desert of experimentation and uncertainty. We are striving to enter the promised land of worship that achieves a liturgy both beautiful and meaningful, and hand this legacy on to our descendents in the Faith.  

Postscript: 9/11

As I reviewed my book recently, I was watching some of the 10th anniversary ceremonies conducted at the site of the World Trade Center memorial. I wrote meditation shortly after September 11, 2001, and decided to share it with you now.

Joyce Stolberg

We have perhaps all witnessed (at least on television) the horrific attack made on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the flight over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Those images are seared in our memories forever. The gaping holes, twisted beams and crushed bodies cry out to God, as did the blood of Abel. We mourn for nearly 3000 innocent people who lost their lives, for families who must carry on without them and for the country’s loss of innocence. If you screamed against God for allowing this to happen, or, even for a moment, wondered if God had abandoned his universe, you are not alone. Your faith in a good God was severely tested.

There are no easy answers.

This was the terrible act of men who cultivated a conscience so erroneous and twisted that they thought their deeds, which objectively were monstrously evil, could somehow actually please God, as they understood him. Their choice was not in keeping with the teachings of Muslims who worship the one, living, eternal merciful God. These sons and daughters of Abraham also follow a strict moral code and they are worthy of deep respect (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions 2, 3.)

No one can assert that all these untimely deaths, which were the immediate result of moral evil, were the direct will of God. They weren’t. They were caused by sin. Yet, God, the giver of free will, permitted them to happen. God also permitted his only son, Jesus, to be put to death on a cross. We do not always understand God’s ways, his providence, or the reasons why he permits evil to happen. Nevertheless, we can trust that God brings good out of evil. God is Lord of all human history. If not before, then at the Last Judgment we will see how the grace of God has been sufficient to overcome all evil, especially unthinkable acts of moral evil such as the ones perpetrated on 9/11.


The "O Antiphons" Our History and Our Hope

By Joyce Stolberg

As we prepare to commemorate the marvelous birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas, we identify with the ancient people of Israel who were the first to await the coming of a Messiah. Catholics and some Protestant denominations observe a time of preparation for Christmas as a season of prayer and expectation known as Advent. We enter into the Israelites’ yearning and actually BECOME the people awaiting the Promised One, yet with the hindsight of knowing that he has already come and how it happened. As we celebrate the season of Advent during the four weeks prior to Christmas, we journey through the whole history of the Israelite people and of all humankind, from the beginning of Creation until the time immediately prior to the coming of Jesus Christ. We experience the grace of Christ present in our lives as we strive to become kinder, gentler, and more conformed to the manner in which Jesus taught us to live. We also taste their ardent yearning as we look forward to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.

An antiphon is a short verse sung before and after a psalm during the “Prayer of the Hours,” the official prayer of the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal and possibly other Churches. Since the very early formation of the Church's liturgy, the “O Antiphons” have traditionally been sung at Vespers, the evening prayer, before and after the “Magnificat” on the last seven days before Christmas, December 17-23. Please note here that the evening prayer marks the beginning of the following day: for example, December 23 Vespers begins the vigil, which is Christmas Eve. These antiphons are also incorporated into the Liturgy of the Word of the daily Catholic Mass, sung immediately preceding the reading of the holy Gospel.

When you write a thesis or a court document, you recapitulate your ideas at the end in a concise summary. You might call the "O Antiphons" a concise summary that encapsulates the whole history of the Israelite people and the hope for the coming of the Messiah that defined them. The "O Antiphons" express and compress the longing and yearning of the whole human race for the coming of Jesus Christ our Savior. They also give voice to our hope for a world in which the love of Christ will bring peace and justice for all people. The vivid imagery they evoke, the references to Israelite history and the words of the ancient prophets, and the haunting melodies sung in expressive undulating Gregorian rhythm attune our hearts to the imminent coming of the Savior at Christmas. Each antiphon contains a prayer of praise, followed by an ardent prayer of petition. We might note here that the popular song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is directly derived from the classic “O Antiphons” and places them in a more contemporary style. We will refer to all seven verses of this song today.

Keep in mind as we consider these antiphons that the Bible is written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These texts contain certain meanings pertaining directly to Israelite history and they also contain a more profound layer of meaning, which can only be comprehended in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man. Scriptures, from which the “O Antiphons” derived, prophesied events in Israelite history, foretold the coming of Christ, God become man, in the fullness of time, and also anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ as the Great Judge at the end of human history. We will take a look at each Antiphon with a view to appreciating these strata. We will look at the books of Sacred Scripture that refer to and describe the era represented by each antiphon. We will also look at readings, primarily from Isaiah and some of the other prophets that are read during Advent; these contain the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ. We will appreciate the richly layered meanings contained in these prophecies. We must keep in mind two most basic doctrines that frame Christianity: the Trinity – there are three divine Persons in One God – and the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of Jesus Christ. These concepts add a Christian dimension that is not innate in the Jewish mind set.

Let us now look at each individual "O Antiphon" and see how it fits into the Israelite history and into our hope for a better world united under Christ the King.

December 17

O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence!

(English Translation from old Breviary)

Creation, Prehistory: Indefinite Time

This antiphon transports us back to the very beginning of created time. We become present with the Spirit of God hovering over Creation (Genesis1:1-31). We can almost see the superheated, swirling elements settling down to form the dry land and the watery oceans. Then God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden. References include excerpts from the Psalms (Psalms 8, 104) and the Wisdom Literature.

Genesis 1-4

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,

the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness.

Psalm 104

Bless the LORD, my soul! LORD, my God, you are great indeed! You are clothed with majesty and glory, robed in light as with a cloak. You spread out the heavens like a tent;

you raised your palace upon the waters. You make the clouds your chariot; you travel on the wings of the wind. You make the winds your messengers; flaming fire, your ministers.

You fixed the earth on its foundation, never to be moved. The ocean covered it like a garment; above the mountains stood the waters.

Christians and Jews hold in common the story of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. We amble through the pristine garden, then heave a sigh as Adam and Eve reject God's friendship. Then God turns and promises them a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15). This is the first of God's promises to remain with and not abandon his people. In the New Testament literature we see numerous references in St. Paul's epistles to Christ as the new Adam (Romans 5:15-18; 1 Cor. 15:21, 22). In Revelation we see Mary as the new Eve (Rev. 12:1-6). Ultimately, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. Ch. 21, 22).

Whether we give these chapters a literal or a literary interpretation, we marvel at God's creation of humankind in immaculate splendor, and we are saddened as we see our first parents reject the grace and favors of God for themselves and all their descendents. We wonder what that state of innocence was like, and what primordial sin could have been so compelling that God removed Adam and Eve from Paradise. Yet God had a Plan B for the human race. The immense journey from the creation and fall of humankind to the fullness of time when God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to earth for our Salvation is compressed in the rest of the “O Antiphons.”

December 18

O Adonai and Ruler of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him your law. Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!

Circa 1350 to 1250 BC (Sources vary slightly)

We fast-forward here to the image of Moses leading the people out of Egypt, passing through the Red Sea and into the desert of Sinai. Using signs and wonders, almighty Yahweh himself redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus was the great defining saving act of God; it freed the Israelites from slavery and enabled God to form them into a people of his own. Here in the desert, through trials and privations, God forged a new people out of a scattered cacophonous group of slaves, over a period of 40 years and across two generations.

Deuteronomy Chapter 5

Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and decrees which I proclaim in your hearing this day, that you may learn them and take care to observe them.

The LORD, our God, made a covenant with us at Horeb; not with our fathers did he make this covenant, but with us, all of us who are alive here this day.

The LORD spoke with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire.

We see, in Exodus, chapters19 and 20, God giving Moses the Ten Commandments amid fire, thunder, smoke and lightning. This text, ratified in Deuteronomy, chapter 5, describes a theophany, or a manifestation of God in all his great power and majesty. Here, God called one remnant of the children of Adam and Eve, and assembled them as a covenant people, peculiarly his own.

Codes of law had already been given to the people by wise rulers such as Hammurabi. Here, while similarities exist, the Law of Moses comprised the revealed word of God, the great Lord of lords, and it contained the terms or rules of the covenant between God and his people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us his new law of love, and new, refined rules for living as his people (Matt 5:1-12).

December 19

O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to you all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay.

Circa 1100 to 1000 BC

Overflowing with love, tenderness, and fidelity, the Book of Ruth might be the best love story ever written. It connects the rough-and-tumble history of the conquest and the judges with the more settled, prosperous kingdoms of David and Solomon. Elimelech, Naomi and their sons left Bethlehem and journeyed to Moab because of a famine. Their sons married Moabite women; then Elimelech and both sons died. Ruth followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem where she caught the eye of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Note that the person who married the widow of a late relative (in this case, a daughter-in-law) was called her “goal” or "redeemer" (Dt. 25:5-6).

Ruth 4:9,10

Boaz then said to the elders and to all the people, "You are witnesses today that I have acquired from Naomi all the holdings of Elimelech, Chilion and Mahlon.

I also take Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, as my wife, in order to raise up a family for her late husband on his estate, so that the name of the departed may not perish among his kinsmen and fellow citizens. Do you witness this today?"

Boaz married Ruth and became the father of Obed who became the father of Jesse, the father of David. It was to David, Jesse’s youngest son, anointed king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-13), that God promised a descendent would always sit on his throne (2 Sam. 7:8-17). Hence Jesus Christ, the descendent of King David, was the flower that sprouted from the stump of Jesse. Jesus Christ is the Redeemer who saved all humankind.

The Latin form of this antiphon reads "Radix" or Rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Today's English variously translates this as "root" or "shoot," or sometimes "flower." The correct meaning is offshoot or offspring. Jesus was definitely the finest flower on a branch of the family tree of David and of Ruth. Therefore "shoot" or "flower" is closer to the true meaning than "root.” However, placing elaborate musical notation on the "O" followed by "shoot" somehow fails to convey a solemn attitude in English! The hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel uses the term "Rod of Jesse". In your leisure time, read the book of Ruth. With only four chapters, it is as short as it is sweet.

December 20

O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and no man closes; You close and no man opens.
Come, and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Circa 1000 to 587 BC

While the Exodus was the great saving event that formed the Israelite people, the kingships of David and Solomon marked the climax, or the "golden age" of their kingdom. God's promise to David through Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 7:8-17) that there would always be an heir to sit on his throne meant that a reigning descendent of David became the sign, or the affirmation, of God's covenant with his people.

2 Samuel 7:16

Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.

After Solomon’s death, the kingdom became divided. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, often led by their kings, sinned time and again through their failure to worship the Lord and through turning to the gods of the surrounding Canaanites. When King Ahaz of Judah trembled in fear of the Assyrians, God promised that his "intended" or his young bride-to-be (the virgin) would bear a son. This son became “Immanuel,” God's sign and assurance that the covenant would be kept and the kingdom would go on (Is. 7:11-16). Hezekiah, the son, would reform and save Judah. Christians see in this prophesy God's promise that he would send his own Son, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Micah prophesied that the king would come from Bethlehem – that is – he would be of the House of David (Micah 5:1-4).

Isaiah 7: 11- 16

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, "I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!"

Then he said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

He shall be living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good. For before the child learns to reject the bad and choose the good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.

If the king broke the covenant by worshiping false gods, then God broke his rule over the people by selecting another king, but always a descendent of David. Isaiah 22:20-24 describes just such an incident. God took the "Key of David" away from the unfaithful master of the palace, Shebna and gave it to Eliakim. The "Key of the House of David" was the symbol of the authority and responsibility of his ancestor, David.

December 21

O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

587 BC to 538 BC

Has God abandoned his people? Has Salvation History come to an end? The longest darkest night of ancient Jewish history would severely test the faith of the people in Yahweh. The northern kingdom, Israel, had succumbed to the invasion of the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Thanks to Hezekiah's trust in the Lord, the southern kingdom, Judah, had been spared. It is now 587 BC, and King Zedekiah, along with the whole nation, had been unfaithful to the Lord. Idol worship and sins against the Commandments had become so rampant that God could no longer remain silent. The Jewish people were conquered and carried off as captives to Babylon. For 70 years -- a mystical number here -- the land would languish in ruins until it recovered its lost sabbaths. There was no king, no sign of God's favor. It would take another two generations for the Lord to re-form a people and re-gather a remnant cleansed of sin and faithful to his Covenant. Yet even as the people were dragged off into exile, God was promising redemption through the mouths of his prophets. Ezekiel envisioned the glory of her rebuilt temple even as it lay in ruins (Ezekiel chapters 40-47).

After the long dark night of exile and purification, the Lord anointed an unlikely hero to redeem the Israelites and send them back to their land. This was King Cyrus of Persia, who, without knowing the Lord, did his bidding and became his instrument of liberation. He defeated the Babylonians and sent the Israelites home with all the treasures of the temple that had been confiscated. Isaiah called King Cyrus, who was a foreigner and a pagan, the Anointed of the Lord. King Cyrus is the rising dawn from the East that dispels the long dark night of the Jew's exile (Isaiah 45:1-9).

Isaiah Chapter 45:1 -5

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, Subduing nations before him, and making kings run in his service, Opening doors before him and leaving the gates unbarred: I will go before you and level the mountains; Bronze doors I will shatter, and iron bars I will snap.

I will give you treasures out of the darkness, and riches that have been hidden away, That you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not.

I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, ...

As Christians, we celebrate the coming of Christ, the Light of the World, the Anointed One, who dispelled the darkness of sin and of Satan's reign. See Zachariah’s canticle (Luke 1:78). This antiphon is sung, for us in the northern hemisphere, on the darkest day of the year. The light, mercy and hope brought to us through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ would dispel the darkness of cruelty and despair, creating the new culture of the Kingdom of God on earth. His death on the cross would be the death of Satan’s reign.

December 22

O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save poor man whom you fashioned out of clay.

538 BC to 63 BC

Though characterized by triumph and jubilation, this homecoming involved hard work and disappointment, and was accompanied by great hardship. The returning exiles were led by governors, scribes and priests. The reconstruction was initially supported by Cyrus of Persia and his successors; but persecution broke out later under Greek domination. Hence a longing for a Messiah or a Redeemer took the form of yearning for a single great king, who would liberate and govern the ideal kingdom, reuniting both Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 37:15-22). This king would be a powerful descendent of David, and the new Anointed One.

Ezekiel Chapter 37: 15-20

Thus the word of the LORD came to me:

Now, son of man, take a single stick, and write on it: Judah and those Israelites who are associated with him. Then take another stick and write on it: Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.

Then join the two sticks together, so that they form one stick in your hand. When your countrymen ask you, "Will you not tell us what you mean by all this?",

answer them: Thus says the Lord GOD: (I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and of the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will join to it the stick of Judah, making them a single stick; they shall be one in my hand. The sticks on which you write you shall hold up before them to see.

Tell them: Thus speaks the Lord GOD: "I will take the Israelites from among the nations to which they have come, and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land."

There were no strong dominating prophets: at this point in its history, you could call Israel a "non-prophet" organization. The yearning for a return to the "golden age" of the Davidic Kingdom under one strong unifying figure would never happen. There would be no Messiah, no Redeemer, at this juncture in history. The Israelites won their freedom briefly under the leadership of the courageous Maccabees.

Some books were written during this time, including the Wisdom Literature, parts of Daniel, stories about Judith and Esther, and I and II Maccabees. Depending on your Bible, these may be called the "deuterocanonical books" or the "apocrypha." Regardless of their official status, they are very inspirational books.

We see Christ as the King of Kings, the Holy Anointed One and the definitive ruler who would unite the world in peace, and teach us how to live with a sense of justice, in right relationships with one another and with God. Jesus is the ultimate Messiah, the Anointed One, and the ultimate Cornerstone uniting all people. He would be the Son of God and the son of David, and he would sit on the throne of David forever. But his Kingdom would not be of this world.

December 23

O Emanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Savior: Come, and save us, O Lord our God!

63 BC to Christian Era; End of Time – Climax of Human History

After a scant century of self-rule, the Israelites again lost their freedom to the conquering Romans in 63 BC. At that time Rome permitted the worship of the native people in outlying provinces, and established an uneasy peace throughout the Empire; therefore their rule was somewhat more tolerable than the earlier Greek regime. Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees provided spiritual leadership, while the Roman Empire assigned local secular governors and patrolled with occupying forces. Nevertheless the yearning for a political Messiah, who would lead an uprising and free the people from Roman rule, then sit on the throne of David, reached a fever pitch in the years surrounding the birth of Christ. Political factions abounded and a sense of restless expectation permeated the land. We can see this all through the Gospels.

Luke 1: 26-33

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary.

And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.

He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

mmanuel means "God with us." The Messiah comes! The Messiah would be much more than the sign of God’s presence; he would BE God’s presence. In the midst of all this expectation of a political "anointed one" who would free Israel from foreign domination, the Spirit of Wisdom from on high overshadowed a young virgin who was engaged to an heir of the house of David named Joseph (Luke 1:26-38). She was Joseph’s "intended" or his young bride-to-be, pregnant by the Holy Spirit with the Son of God, the Holy One, the true Emmanuel, God-with-us (Matt. 1:23-25). The great and wondrous Lawgiver, Adonai -- the great Lord who seated David upon the throne -- raised up a righteous shoot from the discarded stump of Jesse. He sent his own divine Son to earth to become a human being. The Child we worship at Christmas is David’s son, yet David’s Lord (Matt. 22: 41-46; Mark 12:35-37). He literally dwells with us and is one of us. He is the true Rising Dawn, or Dayspring, (Luke 1:78-79) the true and lasting splendor of Light everlasting who dispelled the darkness of sin cast by Satan over the whole human race. He is the Cornerstone and King who unites all nations of the earth in the new People of God, the spiritual body of believers.

We linger, elated with the Babe in Bethlehem; but that is only one phase of Christ’s Paschal mystery. Jesus grew to manhood, preached love and forgiveness, and trained his apostles. Even as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowds who acclaimed him (Matt. 21:9) were anticipating a political king. Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits forever at God’s right hand. Because Jesus partook of our human condition, God the Father has assigned him the role of Judge of all humankind.

Christ’s kingdom is twofold. Jesus established his kingdom on earth: Christian society itself is kinder and gentler and our sensitivity toward social justice is the fruit of following his teachings. Our lives are made meaningful by the blessed hope of life everlasting with Christ in the kingdom of heaven, and the hope of being raised up, body and soul, to share all eternity with him in the new Eden, which is heaven.

The Great Assembly of the children of Adam and Eve, which gathered at the foot of Mt. Horeb, and which now constitutes the Body of Christ's People on earth will reach completion in the Great Assembly gathered before the throne of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 7:1-17).

Our hope is not for an earthly kingdom: our hope is for a share in the glory of the eternal heavenly kingdom, without end, forever!


(note: This article will be re-formated to to better fit web viewing)

David& Divided Syrian, Greek Rule Self Roman Rule

Creation / Patriarchs Egypt Moses Conquest Judges Solomon Kingdoms Exile Repatriation Rule Christian Era / Parousia

Indef. Time 2000BC 1800BC 1300BC 1200BC 1100BC 1000BC 900BC 587BC 538BC 134BC 1BC – ?AD End Time

Books Describing or Referring to Events in the Time Frame (This does not indicate when books were actually written or redacted.)

Genesis Genesis Exodus Joshua Judges 1-2 Samuel 1-2Kgs. Jeremiah Ezra 1-2 Maccabees Gospels Revelation

Psalms Lv. Nm. Dt. Ruth 1 Kings 1-2 Ch. Daniel Nehemiah Acts

Wisdom Literature--- -----1 Chr. -- Isaiah and Prophetic Books -- Epistles

Key Persons

Adam/Eve Abraham-Judah Moses Joshua, Ruth, Jesse David Kings/Prophets Cyrus Ezra Mac. Jesus Savior Jesus-Judge

Zerubabel Joseph, Mary Christ the King

O Antiphons

O Wisdom O Adonai O Rod of Jesse O Key of David O Radiant Dawn O Emmanuel -------------

O King of Nations


Scripture References to Period History

Genesis Ch.1-3 Exodus Ch. 19, 20 Book of Ruth 1 Sam. 16:1-13 Ezekiel 37:15-22 Matthew, Ch 1-3

Psalm 8 Deuteronomy Ch. 5 Luke, Ch. 1-3

Wisdom Ch. 9, 10


Prophesies and Advent Readings

Wisdom 9:9-11 Isaiah 33:22 Micah 6:4 Is. 11:1-9 2 Samuel 7:8-16 Is. 22:20-24 Micah 5:1-4

Is. 9:1-6 Is. 45:1-9ff Is. 62:1-5 Malachi 3:1-3; 22-24

Is. 7:11-16

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