O Antiphon for Dec. 22
"O King of the nations [Gentiles] and Desired of all, You are the
cornerstone that binds two into one: Come, and save humankind whom
You formed out of clay."
The antiphons before today were heavily Jewish in their Messianic
content and this one begins that way, but then presents a radical
stumbling to Israel's usual position. The Jews of Jesus' time were not
exactly noted for rabid ecumenism. Their customary ecumenical stance was, alas,
rather closely akin to that of: "Someday
they'll all come crawling and groveling to us on OUR terms."
No problem for the Jews with "King of nations" (Jer. 10:7) or the
Desired of all, (Hag.2:8) these fit the old pattern comfortably.
There is even a cornerstone tradition in Isaiah 28:16, but "as the
foundation of Sion," not a union with all peoples. The jarring note
is in "the cornerstone that binds the two into one." This is
definitely not the way Israel expected the Gentiles to "wake up and
get with it." This is God Himself being the binder, even part of the
bond, the very cause of unity. This is that perfect union which does
not make those united feel smaller or less, because God Himself is
thrown into the breach of union.
Just as Christ has broken down the walls dividing us from the Father,
so is He also the cause and source of our unity with all humanity.
This is very Pauline, expressed in both Eph.2:14 and Gal.3:29 as
Christ being the peace between Jew and Gentile. That wall, humanly
speaking, between Jew and Gentile was very high. Jews could not eat
with Gentiles, many civil observances of foreign lands were
proscribed for them and their refusal to follow these was a source of
frequent persecution. In Mosaic law, Jewish nationality was conferred
by birth from a Jewish mother. The children of a Jewish man and a non-
Jewish wife would not even be Jews, a fact still true today.
The quote from Galatians has further applications to human
unity: "There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male
and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus. But if you
thus belong to Christ, you are the issue of Abraham and so heirs by
promise." Here we see not only the wall dividing Jew and Gentile torn
down, but even the customary way of becoming Jews and heirs to the
promise overthrown. No Jewish male could confer birth membership in Israel.
It travelled through the mother. St. Paul, writing about Christ, makes it clear that He unites
all in a new dispensation, one which supersedes the old.
The Old Israel cherishes promises and waits for their fulfillment.
The New Israel, in its delight that the Messiah has come, often
forgets that it, too, must wait for the fulfillment of the promise
and that the waiting is terrible, painful frustration. No one can
look at the quote from Galatians and smugly assume that we are there.
Anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, religious hatreds,
misogyny and misandry color our world.
Hate crimes fill the news all too often. (Once would be too often...)
We have made a stab at slave and free, but little more than that.
What we miss is that these changes have already been effected,
perfectly, in Christ. The unity, the equality, promises are here:
they are REAL. All that impedes their full realization is just that:
their "real-ization" and discovery in our human hearts. The way to
bring about the promise is to live as if it were already here:
because it is! If every person did that, even to their own personal
cost and detriment, you would see changes in our world and churches
Lastly, there is a reality check that is not too palatable to our
modern ears, the reminder that we were formed out of clay. Several
decades of self-affirming pop psychology in the late 20th century may
have done their work a bit too well in some of us. The Latin "limus"
which is here rather flatteringly rendered as "clay" has the more
common sense of "mud, slime, or mire." Even if we now realize that
the creation of humanity was not a literal case of God making patty-
cake with clay, the message here is quite clear. The most cursory
examination of conscience will reveal how close to our origins we can
often slip. (You potters out there should pardon the pun...)
If this reflection may have inflamed a few, please do not blame Abbot
Lawrence. Most of this was me, after reading Parsch.
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Since the 24th is First Vespers of Christmas, actually beginning the
solemnity, today's antiphon is the last of the great O Antiphons. The
Roman Church formerly made more extensive use of the Jewish custom of
beginning feasts the night before, spanning sunset to sunset, but now
reserves that practice for Sundays and solemnities. Too bad, in a
way. First Vespers of many lesser feasts used to be a joy, and it was
a further connection to our Jewish roots.
A bit of trivia, for which I am indebted to Joyce, who learned it in a
college in the 50's. If you take the first letters of the second words (after
the initial O,) which begin each antiphon, you get the acronym: SARCORE.
Read backwards, on Dec. 24, that spells "Ero cras" Latin for "Tomorrow I
will be (there)".
Now some monastic of the Middle Ages must have had a lot of time on his (or
hands to figure that one out.
"O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of Nations and their
Savior: come, and save us, O Lord our God!"
Emmanuel- God with us- this was a radical fulfillment of the
Messianic prophecies which the Jews had never dreamed would happen: a
divine Messiah. Though the promises all refer to and fit Jesus, the
Messiah expected by the Israelites was not divine. To their
reasoning, none could be literally divine, really the Son of God.
Their expectation of a saving ruler did not assume that God would
share His very nature and essence with the Anointed One.
Emmanuel reflects an entirely Christian and entirely new theology,
one of Incarnation and an immanence hitherto unknown. God with us,
sharing every hardship of humanity in His own flesh, dwelling not in
a Temple spiritually, but as flesh and blood among humanity, wishing
to remain with us until the end of time. This is a dramatic contrast
to the affection, yet distance with which the Lord was regarded in
the Old Testament.
Emmanuel- God with us- it finally springs the liturgical construct
of "waiting" all these weeks and admits that we knew He was there all
along. Advent has that flavor, of a pretended waiting for Him Whom we
know to have already arrived. We place ourselves in the shoes of
those who had Him not in order to better appreciate Him Whom we have
had all along.
We hail Christ as King and Lawgiver (Isaiah 32:22,) and echo the
dying words of Jacob in Gen. 49:10, " The scepter will not pass from
Judah, nor a ruler from his thigh, till He comes that is to be sent.
He is the expectation of the nations." We ask Him to save us. The
Latin "Salva" , the imperative form of "to save," is related
to "salus", health, wholeness. We are asking for a holistic well-
being of mind, soul and body when we thus ask to be saved. We
are, in fact, asking to finally be made perfect, fully whole and sound,
something only God can do!
Lastly, we no longer beat around the bush, (burning or otherwise!) We
come right out and directly call Jesus "our Lord and our God." It is
the crowning acclamation of faith to a long season of expectation.
A blessed late Advent and Christmas to you all. I have enjoyed
sharing these with you because I truly feel they are the best poetry
left in the liturgy of the West, even beating out the now pared-down
Exultet at Easter!
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