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The Antiphon and the Venite

The Issue of Antiphon Placement in the BCP

The use of the Venite/Psalm 95 as an opening element of the day’s praise has been a feature of Western Christian practice practically as far back as we have record. In order that this static element might reflect more of the character of the liturgy being celebrated, seasonal and festal antiphons were soon added and are a feature in the western liturgy by the early medieval period. (I just tried to find an early example in the monastic manuscripts of St Gall to back up this generality, but began to get sucked into the works of Eucherius of Lyon… )

As supplemental material, though, the invitatory antiphons  were left on the Reformation’s cutting room floor and would not reappear into the Books of Common Prayer until the 1928 revisions due, no doubt, to the influence of Frere and others in the Victorian Sarum Revival. with their reappearance comes a problem that catholic Anglicans have always faced: how do we properly incorporate fitting materials back into our liturgical practice? What are the points of negotiation necessary to intelligently fit the classic pattern to the often altered patterns of whatever current authorized BCP is being used?

The 1928 books solved the problem for us. The American book appoints the antiphon to only be used once: “On the days hereafter named, immediately before the Venite may be sung or said…” In the English Proposed 1928 book the Alternative Order for Morning Prayer directs that: “On the days hereafter named, before this Psalm and after the Gloria Patri which follows it, may be sung or said the Invitatory…”

The American 1979 book reopens the question: “One of the following Antiphons may be sung or said with the Invitatory Psalm.”

So—what’ll it be: before-and-after or some other pattern?

Historic Western Use

Historic Western use has never been thrilled with just a single repetition of the invitatory antiphon.

A classic early example is the use of the antiphon in the Office of the Blessed Virgin in the English prymers:

[psalm 95 ] : Venite, exultemus.
Come ye, make we ful out ioie  to þe lord; herteli synge we to god oure helþe;  [2] bifore occupie we  his face in knouleching; & herteli synge we  to him salmes.
Hail, marie, ful of grace ! þe lord is wiþ þee.
3 For god is a greet lord, and greet kyng aboue alle goddis. for þe lord schal not putte awey his puple ; [4] for alle þe endis of erþe ben in his hond,  & þe hignessis of hillis ben hise.
þe lord is wiþ þee.
5 For þe see is his, & he made it, & hise hondis formeden þe drie lond. [6] come ye, herie we, & falle we doun bifore god ; wepe we bifore þe lord þat made us ! [7] for he is oure lord god ; & we ben þe puple of his lesewe, & þe scheep of his hond.
Hail, marie, ful of grace ! þe lord is wiþ þee.
8 If ye han herde his vois to dai, nyle ye make harde youre hertis ; as bi þe terryng to wraþþe, bi þe dai of temptacioun in desert; [9] where youre fadris temptiden me; þei preueden & siyen my werkis.
þe lord is wiþ þee.
10 Fourti yeer y was oifendid to þis generacioun, and y seide : ‘ euere fei erren in herte.’ & þese men knewen not my weies ; [11] to whiche y swore in myn ire, þei sehulen not entre in-to my reste.’
Hail, marie, ful of grace ! þe lord is wiþ þee.
Glorie be to þe fadir, & to þe sone, & to þe holi gost ! As it was in þe beginnyng, & now, & euer in-to þe worldis of worldis. amen !
þe lord is wif fee.
Hail, marie, ful of grace ! þe lord is wiþ þee.

So—a few things jump out based on this use. First, it’s interspersed—not just before-and-after. Second, although the prymers were primarily (though not exclusively) designed for private recitation, the pattern of the antiphon betrays its origins in antiphonal choral recitation; the tell-tale sign is the use of the second half and the recitation of both elements at the end. Third, a key principle in the antiphon’s disbursement seems not to be sense-units. If we wanted to follow the literary structure of the psalm, we wouldn’t insert a break between elements of creation: “erþe ” and “see”.

When we turn to our early twentieth century Roman sources and the Anglican texts that follow them, we see the stability of this antiphon distribution from the Marquis of Bute’s 1908 translation of the Tridentine Breviary:

Invitatory. Let us worship the Lord, for * He is our Maker.
Repetition. Let us worship the Lord, for * He is our Maker.
O COME, let us sing unto the LORD, let us make a joyful noise to the God of our Salvation : let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto Him with psalms.
Let us worship the Lord, for He is our Maker.
For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods : for the Lord will not cast off His people : for in His hand are all the ends of the earth ; and the heights of the hills are His also.
He is our Maker.
For the sea is His, and He made it : and His hands formed the dry land : O come, let us worship and fall down ; let us cry unto the LORD our Maker.  For He is the Lord our God ; and we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.
Let us worship the Lord, for He is our Maker.
To-day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your heart ; as in “the Provocation,”; and as in the day of “Temptation”; in the wilderness : when your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My works.
He is our Maker.
Forty years long was I grieved with that generation and said, It is a people that do alway err in their heart, and they have not known My ways : unto whom I sware in My wrath that they should not enter into My rest.
Let us worship the Lord, for He is our Maker.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
He is our Maker.
Let us worship the Lord, for He is our Maker.

Likewise, this is the distribution in The Monastic Diurnal and the Anglican Breviary.

Turning to official Anglican sources, there is no paragraphing in either the Venite in Morning Prayer or Psalm 95 in the Psalter of the American ’28 book.

There are some changes in the ’79 book.

Paragraphing has been added to the Venite in both services of Morning Prayer, the Rite I version of Psalm 95 tucked away after the offices, and in the Psalm 95 of the Psalter. The last is the simplest—there is a gap between verse 7 and 8—but gets us to one of two major points of interpretation.

Oh, that today…

In the contemporary language versions of the psalm in both Rite II MP and in the Psalter, verse 7 has 3 sense units:

  1. For he is our God,
  2. and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. *
  3. Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!

But does element 3 belong with the rest of the verse or does it go with what comes after? A survey of other psalters (i.e., the ’28, the RSV, the  NIV, and the NRSV) quickly shows that these place element 3 with the next section, noting the parallelism between the “oh” that may start the previous section at the beginning of verse 6.

Note that the “Oh, that today” section does not appear in the Venite of either the ’28 BCP or Rite I, and that it is placed with what follows rather than what precedes in the Rite I version on BCP p. 146. Americans seem to have always been squeemish about the last part of Ps 95 and its references to God’s wrath and the first 1789 American BCP substitutes it with the section of Ps 96 with which we are familiar.

Part of the fervor of the Liturgical Renewal Movement that spawned the ’79 BCP was the desire to return ad fontes—to get back to the original sources and intentions and to see why certain elements were included in services at all. It’s clear from this alteration in customary practice that the editors decided that this phrase, “Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice!” was the chief reason why this psalm was appointed for daily use throughout Western practice. They kept the original 1789 decision to drop the rest of Ps 95, and simply tacked this (incomplete) phrase onto the previous section to sneak it in.

The sea is his…

The other paragraphing issue is the inclusion of verse 5, the section beginning “The sea is his…” with what precedes it rather than with what follows it in the versions of the Venite in both rites of Morning Prayer. This is clearly a sense-unit issue and is motivated by two points of evidence; first, since v. 5 continues the theme of creation as exemplification of God’s greatness, it properly belongs with what comes before. Second, as noted above, the hortatory “O” at the start of v. 6 identifies a new section of the psalm as well as a shift in thought.

So—bottom line: the BCP versions of the Venite alter the structure off traditional lines in order to better represent the literary sense-units of the psalm, and to tag on the line that may well have served as the impetus for this psalm’s selection in the first place.

A Resolution

So where should the antiphons go? Do we leave them in the traditional position or place them where the current paragraphs end? (I had defaulted to the traditional placement.)

I don’t think it makes a huge difference liturgically. If anything, using the antiphons with the current paragraphs is better exegetically, as the “sea” section does make more sense connected with the “earth” section rather than with the “O come” section with which it was grouped previously.

The final deciding factor that I had previously overlooked is the service music in the hymnal. S-2, 4-10, 34-40 clearly place the antiphons at the end of the current paragraphs and since the breviary does strive to follow the current books, this is where they shall go.

The only odd ambiguity here is S-9 and 10, the Rite I version of the full Ps 95 appointed for us in Lent and penitential days: It places the antiphon after “…sheep of his hand” making “Today if ye will hear his voice…” the start of the next section where the Rite II settings continue to lump “Oh, that today you would hearken…” with what comes before rather than what comes after!

So—for those of you who interchange between Rites I and II, using Rite I in the penitential seasons, you will notice an antiphon shift when the full Ps 95 is used.

Categories: how-come?
  1. William Loring
    September 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    A further note on Venite an “O that today…”
    The Vulgate, followed by Coverdale, includes this line at the beginning of verse 8; but both the hebrew (Bible Society version based on the MT) and the LXX attach it to the end of v. 7 and this is the form used in the KJV and many later ones. The Prayer Book Studies commentary indicates that the Hebrew/Greek precedent, rather than the content of the line, was the determining factor. To me, the logical argument you make based on the form and the sense suggests that Jerome (who of course had earlier MSS than most of the ones that survive today) probably got it right. Come to think of it, the division into verses (at least visually in writing) came long after Jerome and has always been subject to editorial interpretation, and this again leads me to prefer logic and sense to arbitrary numbers, and this also supports your decision to repeat the antiphon after v, 5 rather than 4. Leaving it after ‘today’ in Rite II is really the only way to deal with the text as presented but fortunately I only have to use Rite II MP 3 or 4 days a year!

  2. William Loring
    September 4, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Another thought on the separation of vss. 5 & 6: In Latin the opening words of v. 6 are the sme as the closing words of most of the invitatory antiphons (“venite adoremus”) and placing the antiphon before v.6 would have made an awkward repetition — it still would in English except the US BCP (unlike the Canadian & others) uses a different translation.

  3. (Rev) Wm D. Loring
    September 19, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    When I posted the previous comments I forgot one additional fact. Although the Breviary Psalter is essentially that of the Clementine Vulgate, the Venite follows an Old Latin version, — suggesting that the use of Venite at the beginning of the Office dates back to its earliest forms, and that this division of the verses reflects very early Christian usage.

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