On Antiphons

A breviary user from a non-Episcopal background sent me a nice note the other day asking about  the antiphons from the Office. She was asking about these texts:

Well can this man say: I sat not in the assembly of the mockers, nor rejoiced; I sat alone because of thy hand, for thou hast filled me with indignation.

I have put off the clothing of peace, and put upon me the sackcloth of my prayer; I will cry unto the Everlasting in my days

These are antiphons from the feast of St Benedict; she was struck by them and was curious about what they meant and how they functioned within the liturgy. Let’s begin with the second question first.

Psalm Antiphons

Psalm antiphons have been a standard part of the Office from the early medieval period. Antiphons are small snippets of text, usually a verse or so in length, usually taken from Scripture that are repeated before and after the psalm. (The invitatory antiphon is repeated at several points within the invitatory psalm, but that’s a special case.)

The purpose of the antiphon is to contextualize our hearing/reading of the psalm. The way that we hear the psalm will shift subtly based on the content of the antiphon. It will help draw out certain aspects, and bring certain elements or ideas within the psalms to the fore as they relate to the antiphon.

Antiphons are interpretative devices; they assist in the meaning-making process. However, they are “”underdetermined”which means that they do not impose a meaning on the text but rather only suggest a potential meaning. The relationship between the psalm and the antiphon is not inherently clear. Thus, the interpreter has to do the work to figure out how the antiphon and the psalm relate to one another.

The effect is that the antiphon + psalm combination offers spiritual riches for anyone who has said the Office from one month to fifty years. By not imposing a meaning and by offering a suggestive juxtaposition, each hearer is able to find a spiritual meaning appropriate to their own level of understanding, one that will grow over the years.

For instance, consider Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms and the single most commonly used psalm in the medieval repertoire. (That’s the one that starts “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; * in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”) It will read one way if the antiphon is “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” It will read another if it is “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Both of these are taken from within the psalm itself. However, choosing one or the other will shift how we hear the text.

Classically, there were common antiphons and propers. For feasts, special antiphons relating to the feast would be appointed; for ordinary days antiphons from the psalm itself would be selected. With Cranmer’s decision to simplify the Office, the psalm antiphons were dropped from Anglican liturgies. The current American prayer book restores the option to use them:

Antiphons drawn from the Psalms themselves, or from the opening sentences given in the Offices, or from other passages of Scripture, may be used with the Psalms and biblical Canticles. The antiphons may be sung or said at the beginning and end of each Psalm or Canticle, or may be used as refrains after each verse or group of verses. (BCP, 935)

Since this legitimates the use of the traditional proper antiphons which were virtually all drawn directly from Scripture, I’ve put them back into the Office in the St Bede’s Breviary. (Because of the way psalms and antiphons were grouped in the traditional Roman Offices, there is not an antiphon for every psalm for the commons. As a result, I’ve made selections from the verses used by St Bede in his abbreviated psalter as a source for antiphons.)

Propers of Abbots

So–the material referenced above comes from the Proper of Abbots since St Benedict was, indeed, a monastic abbot and legislator.

The first antiphon, “Well can this man say: I sat not in the assembly of the mockers, nor rejoiced; I sat alone because of thy hand, for thou hast filled me with indignation,” is an adaptation of Jeremiah 15:17. In its original context, it refers to the prophet’s unhappiness with his nation and his rejection of their theological and political decisions in the face of the Babylonian crisis that would ultimately end in the double sack of Jerusalem and its destruction in 587 BC. Isolated as an antiphon and related to abbots, it speaks to the monastic’s choice to isolate himself from society and to choose a life oriented to something other than the idols of his contemporary society.

The second antiphon, “I have put off the clothing of peace, and put upon me the sackcloth of my prayer; I will cry unto the Everlasting in my days,” is a direct citation of Baruch 4:20. In this passage from the apocrypha—in a book attributed to Baruch, the scribe of Jeremiah—it describes an act of penance in reparation for the nation turning away from Torah. As a monastic antiphon, it foregrounds dedication to a life of prayer.

Then, as these two antiphons are brought together in juxtaposition and one seems to lead into another, it does indeed create a potential meaning of a life that rejects the injustice of the wider society and the dedication to a life of prayer as a remedy against it. And, indeed, when you take a look at the original contexts of these two biblical passages, this meaning seems entirely consonant with them. Furthermore, as the monthly psalms have fallen, the first antiphon draws out the contrast drawn between the wicked habits of the “children of men” and the righteousness of God described in Psalm 57; the second leads directly into the question: “ARE your minds set upon righteousness, O ye congregation? * and do ye judge the thing that is right, O ye sons of men?” that kicks off Psalm 58.

So—quick recap—the antiphons are Scripture snippets that provide an interpretive context for the psalms that help us discover new or deeper meanings within them by highlighting certain themes.

3 thoughts on “On Antiphons

  1. Barbara (bls)

    Very interesting. I wonder how this fits in with the development of the chants at the mass; the Introit and Gradual use the same sort of structure. I wonder if antiphons at the Office was meant to imitate that format?

    I’m going to have to go look at synagogue worship during the early period, I think, too….

  2. Stephanie Curtis

    Thanks again, Derek, for your good response to my questions. Your discussion on antiphons was very enlightening and will help a lot a I continue doing the Office. Also, I liked how you put the antiphon I had mentioned in context of St. Benedict as well as Scripture. The original context of the biblical passages and how they relate to Benedict along with the way the monthly psalms have fallen certainly adds richness to the experience of doing the Office. Also, it leads one to reflect on our own lives and times, which is so important.

    In this and other matters that come up in your blog, I admire and appreciate your integrity as a scholar and your heart for God. Thanks for all you do.

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