“Circle of heaven”

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

Q:  The customer called me regarding the entrance antiphon for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Within your will, O Lord, all things are established,
and there is none that can resist your will.
For you have made all things, the heaven and the earth,
and all that is held within the circle of heaven;
you are the Lord of all.

The citation for this antiphon is “cf. Est 4:17,” but it appears to technically come from Esther C:2-4a. The customer is especially taken with the phrase “the circle of heaven,” because of a vision he had last month soon after his father passed away. He saw his father beyond a circular wall surrounding a place that looked like heaven. The next day, he heard this antiphon and thought it was significant. He appreciated my assistance in finding the scripture passage, but was disappointed that it didn’t include the phrase “the circle of heaven.” I spoke to a colleague this morning about this call, and he suggested I contact you. He said that you’d researched the origins of the antiphons in the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal and that you might be able to help. If you could shine any light on this for me or point me in the right direction, I would certainly appreciate it.

Thank you very much for your time.


A:  How good of you to help out this customer who so recently lost his father. It’s beautiful how this antiphon helped his spiritual life.

The earliest reference to this antiphon dates to at least the eighth century when it was assigned to the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. It remained in that position all the way up the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which repositioned many of the classic antiphons to places similar to their appearances in the previous calendar. That’s why it is now assigned to the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The chapter and verse numberings for the Book of Esther differ among several bibles. Centuries ago, some compilers judged that the original version of Esther had shallow theology, so some chapters were added. The Septuagint integrated these into the text. The chapter in question is variously called 13 or C.

The NABRE does have this verse at C:2-4a, as you have detected. The Septuagint and the New Latin Vulgate put it in the same place, but the chapters and verses have been renumbered. This passage comes from Esther 4:17, which could be the longest verse in the bible. It takes practically an entire chapter of an earlier version and assigns it verse numbers such as 17a, 17b, 17c, 17d… 17z, and then 17aa, 17bb, 17cc, and so on. All from verse 17. That’s why the missal today cites that single verse as the source for this antiphon.

The preconciliar missal listed the source as it may have appeared before the Septuagint renumbered it: Esther 13:9 and 10-11. It’s all the same passage.

The third edition of the Roman Missal uses the New Vulgate. The translators were instructed to use the missal as their source, not the NABRE or the Hebrew original. This is because sometimes the antiphons are mild paraphrases of the biblical text.

In both the Old and the New Vulgate you find the expression, cæli ambitu, beautifully translated in the missal as “the circle of heaven.” The translators of the NABRE probably thought that “under heaven” was a good rendering of the original Hebrew. But the missal uses the Vulgate as its source of the bible, which so happily inspired your correspondent.

My knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is too weak to tell you how well the Vulgate has translated the phrase, but the scholars who did it thought that “the circle of heaven” captured the meaning.