In the last days of Advent, while the wider Church sings the far-famed O Antiphons, our retiring friends the Canons Regular of the Dormition instead sound the Z Antiphons, unique compositions found only in the Breviary proper to their Order. Liturgiologists, and all who seek to find in the Sacred Liturgy their proper guide to holiness, ought hearken to this cry, as of herald angels singing.
It must be recalled, first, that – until the last preconciliar changes made to the Roman and allied Breviaries – it was the usual practice to intone only the opening phrase of a given antiphon before its psalm, and to sing the whole antiphon only at its close. This rule, not applied to the O Antiphons, is still applied by the Dormitionists to their Z Antiphons.
Furthermore, in older sources (such as those of sundry French Uses), the O Antiphons are sometimes found to still be repeated even within the Magnificat – as for example before as well as after the Gloria Patri with which the Gospel canticle closes; again, there is evidence for the repetition of each such antiphon after every verse of the Magnificat, for greater solemnity.
Finally, the parallel Mozarabic custom ought be remembered: recall that, on the feast of Our Lady’s Expectation, it was ever the practice in Spain for the choirs to sing a great prolonged O, in recapitulation of the impatient groaning of Creation as sea, sky, earth and all things living looked forward in panting eagerness for Messiah’s birth.
The Dormitionist custom unites all these three curiosities (no doubt in mystical veneration of the Triune Deity). During the latter part of Advent (sometimes styled the Christmas Novena), each Canon in his cell – wherein their Breviary is read, for only Compline is sung in common according to the Soporific Rule – when tackling Vespers in totally restful, quiet, manner, rejoices inwardly at the yearly blessing of the Z Antiphons, and signifies his delight in the manner about to be defined.
The Magnificat about to be read, he prefaces it with a long trilled Zzzzzzzzz. (Note the threefold triplication inherent in this, the opening phrase of each Z Antiphon! In this we hear, do we not, the ninefold harmony of the angelic hosts, as once tickled the shepherds' ears near Bethlehem that happy morn.) Each verse thereof completed, he interpolates a redoubled Zzzzzzzzz, thus:
ZzzzzzzzzMagnificat: * anima mea Dominum.ZzzzzzzzzEt exſultavit ſpiritus meus: * in Deo ſalutari meo.Zzzzzzzzz…
Behold, regard with wonder such holy snoring! Thus do the good Canons fulfil the primitive charism of the Dormitionist Order, especially during the Great Sleep in honour of Our Lord's fetal repose in Our Lady's womb ere, nine months after the Annunciation, He deigned to be born. To symbolize His coming forth to run His course from womb to tomb and back to heaven, the Sicut erat of the Gloria Patri ended, at last each Canon tackles the whole Z Antiphon of the day.
While I do not wish to bore readers with details of these texts (whose mediæval Latin is, to be frank, somewhat barbarous, if diverting, in its vigorous expression of a confident simple piety), I must at least list their incipits, for these reveal the reason the expected O is replaced with Z – put simply, each antiphon begins with a word starting with Z, and by a process of elision the primitive O has doubtless been conformed to the following sibilant, as phoneticians and philologists will understand.
These are the incipits of the Dormitionist Z Antiphons for use with the Magnificat at Vespers from the 16th to the 23rd of December each passing year:
- Zzzzzzzzz zelo zelatus… (“With zeal have I been zealous…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz zephyrus ſpirat… (“The west wind bloweth…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz Zebaoth mitte… (“O Lord of Hosts, send…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz zinziare dignare… (“Vouchsafe to sing as a blackbird…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz zaconi lætate… (“Deacons, rejoice…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz zabule ulula… (“Devil, lament and cry [literally, ‘ululate’]…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz zunior fui… (“I was young…”)
- Zzzzzzzzz zona angelica… (“With an angelic girdle…”)
Note the intriguing use of the German spelling of Sabaoth (familiar to music lovers from Bach’s settings of the Sanctus), and of the vulgar Latin spellings zaconus, zabulus and zunior for diaconus, diabolus and junior. (I leave it to the experts – above all the incomparable Fr Z – to comment further, as would seem most appropriate.)
Many observations could be made about these compositions; suffice to say that the first seems to be the original source of the well-known motto of the Carmelite Order, while the second, when its plainchant is reviewed, reveals itself as the remote origin of the famous Westron Wynde Masses of Taverner, Tye and Sheppard.
Some pedants and Ciceronians have contemptuously spoken of the language of these antiphons as infra dignitatem; but what shall we say of those who disdain Christian Latin, and mayhap proceed to traduce the Vulgate? Such persons were behind the mutilation of venerable Latin hymns; their works are vain, and the Vulgate itself says of them, obstructum est os loquentium iniqua.
It will be noted that there are eight Z Antiphons, not merely seven, the total of the usual set of O Antiphons (though some Uses had more – the Premonstratensians, twelve). This is surely a numerical reference to the Resurrection and the Eighth Day, when all Creation shall be renewed at the last. Sacred numerology ought be a happy hunting ground for believers.