O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,quem de limo formasti.
O King of all the nations,
the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man:
Come and save the creature
you fashioned from the dust.
Welcome back to the O-Antiphons! Today, we are looking at Jesus as the King of the Nations. The theme of kingship is not necessarily a very popular one these days. Ever since the American and French revolutions, we in the West have developed as much of a case of regiphobia as the ancient Romans had in the days of Roman Republic. So, we tend to like to keep our royalty on a leash (as in the British Commonwealth tradition) or to get rid them altogether as an unfortunate relic of a more oppressive time. So, in this democratic age, all this imagery around the kingship of Jesus is all rather embarrassing or, worse, a dangerous invitation to religious authoritarianism and triumphalism. This is why, if any verse of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel gets left off, this one, the King of the Nations, is the first to go. That is sad because this verse adds much to the mix represented by the O-Antiphons
If we have to understand what we have to lose in cutting out this Antiphon, we have to ask ourselves who is this King of the Nations? This title first appears, oddly enough, in the Old Testament in the prophets. From that, one would expect that this king would be a king of Israel whose power would extend over the nations around it. To say that this would have been just short of delusional at the time of the prophets to believe in any king of Israel becoming so powerful would be an understatement. Furthermore, it would ignore that the prophets tend to alternate between cursing Israel, Judaea and her kings for unfaithfulness and promising a kind of Golden Age for the faithful remnant which would return to the devastated Promised Land. It is out of this second prophetic theme that the figure of the King of the Nations comes. Thus, for example, we have Isaiah's vision of the future house of God to which all the nations would come(Isaiah, 2,2-4):
"In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.
’For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Here we find a different sort of king. In the first place, this is no human king. It is God himself, acting directly in the life of both Israel and the nations. I don't know if we realize how significant this is. All the other kingdoms around Israel adopted a concept of kingship which saw the ruler as semi- or totally divine. One only has to look at the arrogance of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to see how far that would go (Daniel 3- 4). Yet, in the Old Testament, there is a certain ambivalence to human kings, partly because of their greed for power and wealth and partly because, in Israel's very special case, they displaced the kingship which God exercised through his judges during the early days of Israel in the Promised Land. Indeed, in First Samuel 8, when all Israel demanded a king, Samuel warns them that they'll be sorry, but, ultimately, God instructed him to give in. So, what we see in this passage and passages like it is not the raising up of a ultra-powerful human king, but, in a sense, a restoration of God himself as the real king of both Israel and all the peoples. This image of the King of the Nations speaks about our God, not about a mere human king.
Still, we are left with the question of what kind of reign is this kingship of God? Again, we need to return, first and foremost, to what the prophets say. In Isaiah 4 (quoted above) and, again, in Isaiah 11 (quoted in the Branch of Jesse Antiphon a few days ago), we find not a kingdom of war or oppression, but one of justice and peace. In Isaiah 4, we find the nations seeking out God on the mountain of the Lord (Zion). We find him arbitrating disputes so that war is no longer necessary and weapons are returned to peaceful uses. In Isaiah 11, we find evil driven out, justice restored and even nature returning to a peace that it hasn't seen since before Adam's fall. Both of these passages promise the return of the peaceable kingdom which God had created for us and which we rejected when we chose to seek equality with or even superiority to Him. In this kingdom, we will return to unity with God the Creator, with Creation and ourselves. What human king, or president or prime minister can manage that?
One might ask at this point: how does this kingship get transferred from God to Jesus? Of course, one simple theological answer is that Jesus is one of the persons of the triune God and that all the persons of the Trinity participate in the activities of the other two persons (simple?). If we are to look at this historically, we have to first look at the Daniel 7, 13-14, when Daniel is finishing his apocalyptic vision of the Four Beasts. Setting aside the much-vexed question of who those beasts are, we need to pay attention to the final words of the vision:
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Here we see the imagery of the kingship of the nations, reserved by Isaiah and earlier prophets to God Himself, transferred to "one like a human being". Naturally, this passage has become a central one when both Jews and Christians discuss the coming of the Messiah. Equally naturally, Jews and Christians disagree vehemently (both between themselves and among their own coreligionists) on who this human being was/is/will be. I have no intention to relive those debates here (thank God!), but rather to note that this passage is key to the messianic expectation which, for Christians, finds its fulfillment in that very different Messiah, Jesus Christ. Yet, even if someone is inclined to doubt this identification, there is no way to doubt that the idea that even the nations which oppressed the Jews would come to worship the one God, the God of Israel, was seen as an important element identifying the messianic times. The joining of the Jew and the Gentile inaugurated this kingdom of peace predicted by the prophets.
So, it is natural, when the first apostles began to identify Jesus as the Messiah that this sense of kingship would come to the fore. Indeed, it is this kingship or, at least, a basic confusion about the messianic kingship which led to suspicions about the political implications of Jesus' messianic claims. There is not doubt that many Jews in the days of Jesus fully expected a conquering Messiah who would drive the Romans out using military force. It is, also, without a doubt, a reason why the Jewish religious/political authorities and the Romans felt it necessary to eliminate such a potential rabble-rouser. Jesus persistently denied his kingship in this violent sense, without ever really denying his kingship in a much more mysterious sense. This makes Pilate's mocking affirmation of Jesus' kingship, first to the crowds, then on the sign on the cross, very ironic because, in the crucifixion, we see the ruin of any idea that Jesus was a Messiah in the popular sense, but we see an affirmation of Jesus' kingship nonetheless.
So, where do we find Jesus' kingship today? Paul, in Ephesians, give us a clear hint. In this letter, Paul is trying to emphasize the unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In doing so, he offers a vision of the Church which is strikingly similar to the visions of the Hebrew prophets:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19S o then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. (Ephesians, 2, 11-21)
According to Paul, it is here, in the Church, which sees an anticipation of that peaceable kingdom found in the prophets and which we will find in the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation (Revelation, 21-22). Of course, this vision is incomplete, even within the Church. Quite early on, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head to destroy Paul's vision of unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. And, of course, we have found many, many opportunities and issues about which to quarrel, to denounce and even to kill each other over. Church history makes for rather grim reading and, certainly, offers more than ample evidence of our failures even if it shows glimmers of successes. Still, this King that we follow offers us the hope for a peaceable kingdom which unites Jew and Gentiles as Daniel promised and Jesus exemplified in his disregard for the division between Jew and Gentile even in his own life. It is that hope that we Christians, when we ourselves remember it, offer the world as the Church.
Ultimately, after all this biblical exegesis and theology, we have to come back to what is the point of this kingdom? And, here, we return to the same point as the previous O Antiphons. What all these titles of Jesus tell us is that Jesus' power is not for His own sake or for building up His own or even the Church's power against those who don't belong. Rather, as this antiphon emphasizes, it is to save "the creature you fashioned from the dust" from a distinctly dangerous and deadly world. Through these O Antiphons, we learn some essential things about this God of ours: He is powerful, He is wise, He is merciful and, above all, He wants to save us from ourselves and from the evil that we have brought into the world. For those of us who long for peace, for justice and for rescue from our sins, these Antiphons point us to the King of the Nations, to Jesus Christ.
Veni, Veni, Rex Gentium,
Veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos peccati sibi conscios.
O Come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven's peace