Friday, December 24, 2010

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Gaude! Gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Strictly speaking, we finished up the O-Antiphons yesterday with the climactic O Emmanuel Antiphon. Still, I felt that I would be remiss if I didn't include some king of concluding remarks on this series.

Here is the complete cycle, if you want to review it in its completed form:

O Wisdom
O Adonai
O Radix Jesse
O Clavis David
O Oriens
O Rex Gentium
O Emmanuel

I don't really know what I expected when I started on this series. I think that I liked the idea of the O Antiphons rather more than I understood them. My exposure to them until this year has been in the form of the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and the odd mention of them in my spiritual reading including the amusing vignette by Kathleen Norris, in Cloister Walk (I think!), depicting her encounter with the O-Antiphons in the hills above LA after a busy few days of book-signings.

What this series has helped me to see is how much these Antiphons hang together and how they really are seven short lessons on just who it is that we're waiting for this and every Advent. Although it may seem perplexing that they tell about this Jesus through images and Old Testament typology, this cross connections make for a richer explanation of Jesus' place in our lives. No wonder they've been so cherished over the centuries.

So, what is Jesus, according to the O- Antiphons? He is God and Man. It is His birth that we celebrate on Saturday and it is the miracle of God becoming Man which makes this otherwise insignificant birth of a carpenter's son so important.

Yet, Jesus has always been here, working in the world that He, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, created. This Jesus, the carpenter's son, was a craftsman, long before he became human. He knows the world in a way that we cannot, because he made it.

Jesus has great power, but that is not afraid not to use it when it comes to finding the best way to save us. That is astonishing in this violent world, where the best answer for dealing with other people is coercion and, if necessary, violence. Jesus' apparent weakness, as a baby and, at the end of His life, on the Cross, masks his power, but it proves to be a subtle subversion of the very evil which threatens to destroy us.

Jesus is our Savior. That is, Jesus' whole goal in coming down to Earth as a human was to save us all, not only from our own self-destructiveness (as a species and as individuals), but the ultimate enemy of humanity, death. Indeed, He intends, not only to negate the greatest negation of our being (death), but to restore us to a connection to God, the Three-in-One, and with the Creation itself. We are called to return to our true home, God's home, and I pray that we find our way there in whatever way we can.

In this holiday season, I want to wish you, your family and all your loved ones a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

Christus natus est!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

O Antiphons- O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.

Welcome to the last of the O-Antiphons and, of course, the first verse of the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The Catholic resources web page which I'm using for the texts and bible passages for this series is rather tart about this connection, commenting "since it [the hymn] is so popular, and some people might not even realize that it was Advent unless they heard this hymn" That is true, of course, although I have to admit that, before this series, I hadn't realized the change in order and, yes, I really don't feel like it is Advent until I've heard the hymn. Mind you, I've always been a sucker for melancholic chant or plain-son tunes, even before I was Christian, so I couldn't probably escape liking O Come, O Come Emmanuel. One of the unanticipated results of this series is that I have been forced to look beyond the hymn and at the O Antiphons which inspired it and whose order so neatly builds on each other that I have to wonder now why should we mess with the order?

This Antiphon introduces us to the figure of Emmunuel, who, like practically every image in the O Antiphons, begins with a prophecy of Isaiah. The context here is interesting because we see Isaiah forcing a prophecy on a notably reluctant King Ahaz of Judaea. Ahaz doesn't have a very good reputation in the biblical record. He rejected the worship of the God of Israel and Judaea, he sought the gods of other nations and was exceptionally unlucky in war, being defeated soundly by several of his neighbours (2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28). Yet, Isaiah's prophecy is here quite hopeful, if not for Ahaz, then, at least, for his soon to be born son:

"‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’

On the basic historical level, this prophecy really is a prediction that Ahaz will have a successor whose enemies would soon be eliminated and who would live in a welcome, if unusual period of peace. On a basic level, this prediction would seem to refer to Hezekiah, Ahaz' much more faithful son, who escaped an Assyrian attempt to capture his capital (2 Kings 19, 2 Chronicles 32)and who was granted fifteen years longer life after a serious illness. Certainly, Hezekiah's reign was luckier than his fathers, but, when one really looks at this prediction, it is hard not to notice that the prophecy doesn't predict luck, but the suppression of Judaea's enemies and a revival in Judaea's power in much the same way as Isaiah's rather more spectacular predictions of God's peace returning to Israel that we have already discussed in connection to other Antiphons. Thus, it isn't surprising that latter readers of this prophecy began to wonder if this Emmanuel that Isaiah refers to had really come as Ahaz' son, Hezekiah, or whether we should still be awaiting him.
Given this question about the true coming of Emmanuel, we shouldn't be very surprised that, when the Biblical writers were thinking about the coming of another miraculous child, that they turned to this birth. Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew quotes this passage directly as being fulfilled in the birth of Christ: "Look,the virgin shall conceive and bear a son/ and they shall name him Emmanuel" (Matthew 1,23). There is, of course, a change in the description of Emmanuel-Jesus' mother which opens a pretty large can of theological worms; a can which I don't have the space, time or inclination to empty fully. There are excellent scientific, historical and linguistic reasons to doubt this wording, it is true, but, if we look at what Matthew thought, we find that he depicts the conception of Jesus as miraculous. Otherwise, we can't really explain why Joseph was so surprised and hurt by Mary's pregnancy that he assumed adultery and was about to divorce her quietly, when the angel of the Lord tells him where the conception really came from: the Holy Spirit (Matthew, 1, 18-24). If we don't presume a virgin birth, Jesus' birth doesn't make much sense nor does it make clear the divine hand in the conception. Yet, this debate over virgin birth isn't really the point of either the Gospel story or the Antiphon.

The real theme of this Antiphon is, as with all the other Antiphons, salvation. That is, Emmanuel- God is with us-is called upon to come and set us free. The hymn is even more descriptive, asking Emmanuel to save us from "lonely exile here". This connects with a theme of not being quite at home in the world we find ourselves in- a feeling that many people share whether they are religious or not. I see it everywhere from my students to friends and acquaintances and, yes, myself. I recall very clearly that sense, in my teenaged years and most of my twenties, of not quite being at home in my own skin or out among people and this is despite having a loving family and good friends in my life. There are many, many people who have even greater reason for feeling disconnected and cut off from those around them in this life. Nor have we worked out better ways to truly connect with each other in this Information Age. Our society, for all of its social networking sites and instant communication, remains a very disconnected one where one is constantly talking, but hardly ever making a connection. On some basic level, that sense of exile in the world not only has remained, but it has intensified as we hunker down in front of our computers and seek our connection in this ethereal world of computers, e-mail, blogging and Facebook. When we look up, we are often moved to ask "Where is the real connection? Where is home?"

What is different in my life these days, when I'm paying true attention to what is important in my life, is that, while I may recognize those feelings of exile, my faith in God gives me real hope that this exile will not continue forever and that I am, we are on the way back to our true home. This is, ultimately, what my faith is about: the belief that there is more to this world than the fragmented surface that we see everyday, that the brokenness that we find in our lives and in the world around us will be healed and we will become what God meant us to be. This is, I think, what we mean by a faith journey, a return to the God who created us, who is redeeming us and, ultimately, who will bring us back to a home we have barely heard about, but which we've been anticipating all our lives. The exciting (and sometimes terrifying) thing about this faith journey is that we are not making this journey alone. It is Jesus who guides us because He went this way before us. It is Jesus who helps us because He loves us. It is Jesus who refreshes us because He feeds us. Jesus is, in this sense, truly the Emmanuel- the God with us. And, in another sense, he is also the true Yeshua (Jesus)- the God (who) saves.

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Antiphons- O Rex Gentium

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


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

O Antiphons- O Oriens

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

In this installment, our theme is light which may strike some of my readers as worth a yawn, but little more. Surely, at this time of year, this is a hardly a controversial one. Almost every religious (and many non-religious ones, while we're at it) tradition does something with light this time of year. So, we get various festivals of light in Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Hinduism as well as our own Western tendency to fix lights to anything which will support them. Given that these festivals of light occur at the time of year when the days are the shortest, we should be hardly shocked by their occurrence. Light symbolizes to us safety and hope, while darkness symbolizes danger and despair. The coming of the dawn, any dawn, offers us possibilities for life, so extending that dawn into the night is a natural kind of thing to do this time of year.

That said, what makes this antiphon's stress on light different than these festivals of light? Perhaps it is that Jesus identified Himself as the light of the world and promises that "those who follow me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8,12). This declaration is as much code for the resurrection as it is in guidance for today. Still, we have to remember that Jesus' audience didn't believe him and, in fact, challenged him to provide witnesses to corroborate his statement. Nor is this assertion any more accepted today as in Jesus' day. We are living in a post-Christian age and it is difficult not to see that those who identify with Christianity is significantly less than it was even a generation or two ago. So, all this begs the question: how do we know that Jesus is the light of the world.

Ultimately, we have to begin with the demand of the Pharisees for witnesses. When we do that and begin to look for corroboration of Jesus' claims, we find witnesses, beginning with the prophets, suffering in long exile and waiting for the dawn of God's return to His people. Isaiah declared to the exiles in Babylon that, as the coming righteous king (identified by Christians as Jesus- see tomorrow's entry for why) comes "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them light has shined (Isaiah, 9,2). Later, Isaiah describes in similar terms what the results of a return to justice as worship, a theme dear to Jesus' preaching, would be: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly" Or consider Malachi, who declares that, on the day of the Lord, "for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness hsall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall...: (Malachi 4,2).

Nor are the witnesses limited to the long-dead prophets. Even in Jesus' own day, there were two significant witnesses to Jesus' light to the world. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, declared on the birth of his son that the days which his son would prepare the way for "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who site in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1,78-79). No wonder John is described by the Gospel of John as "a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world;" (John 1,6-9) In each of these cases, the coming of the light dispels a long period of darkness, despair and exile. In each of these cases, there is a long wait by those who follow God, followed by the joy of the returning dawn, the returning light which is symbolic of the joyful return of God into the life of Israel.

Jesus, by declaring Himself the light of the world is saying to the faithful Jews of his era that the wait is over, dawn is breaking and the light of God is here. It is a bold claim and one can sympathizes with the Pharisees, who want to see some proof of it. We do feel safer when we're sure that other people see something, but, really, with light, either you see it or you don't. Many people in Jesus' day saw the light of God in Jesus; many did not. Nothing much has changed there. Yet, the irony is that the Pharisees demand for witnesses had already been satisfied through the prophets, through Zechariah and, especially, by John, their contemporaries, both conveniently dead. They simply failed to understand what they were trying to say.

Yet, we are not to stop there. Jesus was not, as it were, just another flash in the pan- a brief, glorious eruption of hope, ending in the inevitable returning darkness of despair. Jesus' life on this earth was brief, but, through his death and resurrection, its consequences echo through the centuries and have started us on another long period of waiting for the light. Like many themes in these antiphons, Isaiah anticipates this second return of the light, when he describes the effect of gathering of the remnant of Israel:

"The sun shall no longer be your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light
and your days of mourning shall be ended."

Here, the restoration of Israel will have fundamental natural effects on the world. We have already seen this kind of redemption of nature in our O Antiphons and, while taking this absolutely literally has its risks, we should be alert to the boldness of what Isaiah is saying here. He is not merely talking about the restoration of a nation, but rather a restoration of the entire world through the restoration of Israel. In this sense, he anticipates a theme in the very Christian book, Revelation which depicts the final battle against evil, sin and death as a cosmic battle with cosmic consequences which culminate in the restoration of God's creation. Thus, in the closing of Revelation, Jesus declares himself the Morning Star- the bright star (well, yes, planet- Venus) which anticipates the coming of the day (Revelation 22,16). This establishes the relationship between the two incarnations of Christ; the first serving as the Morning Star for the final coming of the light in the second.

And what will be the result of that Coming? We will see the establishment of the new City of God, the New Jerusalem, to which all faithful people will return to live with God. Yet, it is striking that this vision of the New Jerusalem includes light imagery which is already familiar from the passage in Isaiah which we quoted in the previous paragraph:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. (Revelation 21,22-26)

Here, again, we see the cosmic effect that the victory of God will have. This vision of the New Jerusalem serves as the climax and purpose for the cosmic struggle depicted in Revelation. The final result of this struggle is to see the return of God to fellowship with humanity and his creation. The most clear physical evidence of this return is the Glory of God which will outshine even the mightiest lights of the natural world, descending upon this new city. This is the same Glory of God which so terrified the Israelites near Mt. Sinai and the same Glory which so astonished the disciples in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. This light is the light which, finally and forever, dispel the darkness and gloom of those who live in the darkness of death. Jesus, ultimately, is the first breaking of dawn of that ever-lasting day of God.

Veni, Veni O Oriens, solare nos adveniens,
noctis depelle nebulas, dirasque mortis tenebras.

(6) O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death's dark shadow put to flight

Monday, December 20, 2010

O Antiphons- O Clavis David

Welcome back to the O-Antiphons! Today, we're talking about the key of David.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;

claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel,
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
Come, break down the prison walls of death
for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death;
and lead your captive people into freedom.

We have a curious mix in this antiphon. We start with another connection to the house of David and the royal house of Israel. The first mention of the key of David appears in Isaiah's curious intervention into court politics in the days of the reforming king, Hezekiah (c715-686 BC).. Isaiah prophesies the downfall of Shebna, the erstwhile steward of the king and future appointment of Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, as steward. In this passage, Isaiah declares that God would grant the key to the house of David to Eliakim and that "what he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open (Isaiah 22,22). There is some debate about what this key of David is (is it an actual key or not?), but it equally clear that, symbolically, the key is an emblem of the power delegated to the steward by a king of the house of David. That is, with this key, the steward controls entry into the palace and, thus, the heart of David's kingdom.

This is, of course, what makes this image rather puzzling. If we are right about the key of David in Isaiah being a token of the temporal power of the steward in the kingdom of Judaea, how is it that it appears here as part of the O Antiphons? What does the duties of a court official at the time of Hezekiah, almost seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, have to do with who Jesus is?

The appearance of keys, in Matthew 16, 19 seems to point to an answer, even if these keys are not specifically associated with the key of David. In this passage, Peter is given keys which symbolize something which looks suspiciously like a spiritual version of Eliakim, the steward's job. Peter, by being granted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is given a fairly unique position among the apostles in that his decisions for the Church, have binding force in this world and the next. Whether or not we want to say that this power was passed on to the successors of Peter (a debate I'm profoundly uninterested in engaging in), what is striking in this passage is that the possession of these keys puts Peter into the position of steward in the earliest Church in that he, like Eliakim, enjoys a position of trust which controls the access to the King. Peter never completely loses either in the biblical record even if he does some pretty bone-headed or outright cowardly things, especially in the events surrounding Jesus' death. Eve in our popular imagination, Peter is pictured as the first person we see after we die and reach the 'Pearly Gates'? And, guess who has the key to those gates?

Still, we're not there yet, are we? Peter, for all his faith and zeal, is not God nor did he ever pretend to be. Peter could be wrong even after Jesus' resurrection placed him at the head of the early community of believers. Indeed, immediately after being raised up to being the rock on which the Church would be built (Matthew, 17,18), Peter shows how little he understands Jesus' mission by trying to rebuke Jesus when He said that he would have to suffer, die and be raised on the third day in order to complete his mission (Matthew, 17, 21-22). Jesus, then, compares him to Satan, calls him a stumbling block and tells him that he is setting his mind on human standards, not divine ones (Matthew, 17, 23). I think what we are meant to take away from these two exchanges is something essential about the nature of a steward. Ultimately, while the steward has considerable power in the house of the king, he is not the king. Ours is not the final authority in this world, so we have no right to make judgements here and now about our fellow humans or to close the door to God's grace. The steward's job is to serve to the king, not himself or what he wants to see.

However, the crucial evocation of this image of the key of David occurs in Revelation 3.7 in the address to the church in Philadelphia, where John writes:

7 These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:

8 ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Here the key is directly linked to Jesus, who promises the embattled church of Philadelphia that their enemies will acknowledge their status as loved by God. Again, I think what is implied here is that the key of David opens the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God and that, ultimately, when that kingdom comes (as it is predicted in Revelation itself), the entry to the kingdom, ultimately, is controlled by Jesus himself. Here we see Jesus' advocacy for the weak, but faithful church of Philadelphia which goes a long way to suggest Jesus' own bias towards the marginalized, but passionately faithful. This is in contrast to our own Western church which is rather uncomfortably similar to the Church of Laodicea, rich, but lukewarm (Revelation 3,14-22). Like the Laodiceans, wee try to use our power and influence as indicators of how holy we are, ignoring what the Gospel calls us to do- help the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the marginalized.

Ultimately, I think that it is this image of the key of David found in Revelation that this antiphon echoes. The door which this key opens us is the one that opens the door to life, the Kingdom of God. In many ways, the defining element of the kingdom of this world is that its end is that of death, not life. Of course, we can fool ourselves into ignoring that reality for a time through any number of delusions or fantasies. We can pursue science to seek an elusive goal of human-made (and, thus, human controlled) immortality. We can entertain ourselves in any number of different ways to ignore our mortality. We can use every form of pleasure to mask our anxiety about the future. But, eventually, we all die. As grim as it is, we already know our future.

Yet, as Christians, we know that this power that death has over us is not forever nor is it the most powerful force in our lives. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, broke the power that death has over us and, even if death still holds sway over the world today, we know that Jesus will be back to overthrow that power completely and that we will participate in it through his power to resurrect us. In this sense, the Key of David is not really the key to the palace granted Eliakim, son of Helkiah, nor is it really the keys granted to Peter, but rather they are the keys forged by Jesus in his death and battle with sin and death. The Key of David is the resurrection and the doors it opens is to the return of the Kingdom of God.

Veni, Clavis Davidica, regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum, et claude vias inferum.

O Come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav'nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

O Antiphons- O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse,
qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos,
jam noli tardare.

O Flower of Jesse’s stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

From our emphasis on God's might in the last entry, we move to considering what kind of kingdom we anticipate Jesus, as the Messiah, will inaugurate. This movement, I think, is a crucial one because it is entirely possible to have the concept of a mighty God, but one which primarily engages in indiscriminate smiting; a harsh judgemental God who punishes more than saves, who curses more than blesses. I certainly know people who struggle with that concept of a God and it is difficult to have faith in a divine being who is fundamentally a tyrant. How are you supposed to have faith in someone who is, fundamentally, cruel and arbitrary? You can't.
Yet, I also know that this isn't the God I worship. The Christian God, contrary to the views of some Christians, is one of grace and love. Indeed, Jesus' own life, as we discussed in the last entry, confounds that image, both in the hiddeness of Jesus' power and in his willingness to lead the way through a completely undeserved death to a salvation that no one could have anticipated. That salvation begins now, but leads directly to the vision of God's peaceable kingdom to which this antiphon alludes today.

The crucial biblical passage for this vision is Isaiah 11, 1-10. It is worth quoting the passage at length:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;

4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The passage goes on to describe the return of the the remnant of Israel from all the places to which it was scattered and the turning of its enemies to peace and to worship of Israel's God. However, for Christians, as a graft onto the house of Israel, this passage is a first hint of the kingdom that is to come. Here e find an invocation of the Holy Spirit, an affirmation of the return of justice to the world, a return of creation to its primitive peace with the Creator and the turning of the nations, the non-Jews, to the God of Israel. All this will be brought about by a Messiah, symbolized by the branch of Jesse, by Jesus as a descendant of David, will set the world to rights, bring justice and, more importantly, peace to the world. This peace is so profound that even Nature responds to it and stops being red of tooth and claw.

Ultimately, it is this vision of the peaceable kingdom, the great Shalom, which is the object of the invocation of God's might which we talked about yesterday. God's might isn't employed arbitrarily to put us in our place or to make our lives less enjoyable. God's might is designed to bring out this peaceable kingdom through the undermining of the apparent power of evil in the world. The result is this kingdom in which all creation, all humanity is, finally, united in acknowledging the God who created them. No longer will humanity be at war with each other. More importantly, no longer will humanity be at war God or, for that matter, with His creation. Jesus, as the Messiah, the branch of Jesse, promises this kingdom and works even now, through us, to achieve it. This is nothing less than our reconciliation and peace with God and, through that reconciliation, our salvation from our own delusions of power. We all know where those delusions lead: relationships broken by our need to exert our power, the wars which we fight to exert the power we don't have, the rape of creation of which we are supposed to be stewards, to the manifold sorrows and suffering of a broken world and, ultimately, to death. Our individual and communal delusions are destroying us and only a return to God will save us

Jesus, that root of Jesse, offers us that salvation. He seeks to return humanity and creation itself back to the state of peace which it enjoyed before humanity deluded itself into thinking it knew better than God. Jesus, through becoming human, confronts those delusions and shows us how to break the power they have over us. Jesus promises a world in which peace returns and we are returned to the role that God intended for us- a role which we will find, ultimately, more free than the world we created for ourselves. We see this even now in those grace-filled moments in which the kingdom seen by Isaiah comes, albeit briefly, into sight. When we work for justice, when we confront injustice, when we seek to reconcile with our enemies, when we avoid the easy, violent fix, Jesus, the root of Jesse, is working within and through us. This is how we proceed on the road to the kingdom alluded to in this antiphon; a road which leads not to destruction, but to life.

Veni, O Iesse virgula,
ex hostis tuos ungula,de spectu
tuos tartari educ et antro barathri.

O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse's stem,
from ev'ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

O-Antiphons- O Adonai

Welcome to the second installment of the O-Antiphons series. Yesterday, we talked about Wisdom, the Logos and creation, today we'll talk about might. burning bushes and salvation.

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

In this antiphon, we find ourselves returning to one of God's great saving acts in history- Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. We begin with the burning bush on Mt. Horeb(Exodus 3) and the commission of Moses as the leader who would lead Israel from bondage in Egypt into freedom. We move quickly onto Mt. Sinai, where the law was handed down amid the cloud and the fire of God's presence in the centre of it all. Both of these events are affirmations of God's power in their own right, but they also book-end among the most spectacular examples of God's might in the defence of Israel in the whole Old Testament. From the plagues in Egypt, to the destruction of the Pharaoh's army amid the parting of the Red Sea and the coming of the manna from heaven, we find God using the natural world to overcome Israel's oppressors and to save the people with whom He had made a covenant with in the days of Abraham. Here we find the power implicit in the action of creation being wielded and made manifest in the world of humanity.

This kind of thing, of course, makes Christians uncomfortable, partly because we see God taking sides in history as just code for the 'holy wars' which plague the history of the people called by the Prince of Peace and partly because we find God's power so overwhelming. Like the ancient Israelites, we fear even putting our hand on the mountain in case we die from such direct contact with God's might (Exodus 19,12). Besides, doesn't the smoke and fire on Mt. Sinai produce the Law and aren't we Christians all about grace, not law? How can this evocation of the Exodus story matter to Christians, who, in this post-Holocaust world, have turned their back of triumphalism and coercion in the name of religion?

Yet, what the Exodus story meant to the Jews was that it was a story of salvation par excellence. Completely unexpectedly, God took an oppressed and powerless people and raised them up in order to make them a priestly people, to whom all the other nations would come to worship the one and true God. Here is God's saving intervention in history- one of several which, in the Christian view, would culminate in the God becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as God saved the people of Israel, Jesus Christ, through his life, death and resurrection, will save all humanity from the sin and death that was a natural outcome of its rebellion against its own Creator.

Of course, in the New Testament, that power is oddly hidden. After all, didn't the all-powerful God become a helpless babe in arms? Wasn't He executed like a common criminal without barely any resistance whatsoever? As we read more deeply into the Christian story, we find that this apparent weakness will prove to be the power which breaks the power of sin and the death in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus' resurrection will prove to be the beginning of the end for death and for evil because it proved that God, even in the weakness of the incarnated Jesus, can't be bound by death, but, rather, bursts forth into life with all the intensity which lies behind the creation of the world. Jesus not only gives us an example of how to resist sin and evil in the world, but He gives us the power to do it and the hope to defeat death in our bodily resurrection. And that is the power of God's weakness. What does his strength look like?

If we take Revelation seriously, we'll find that out one of these days. The promise of the Second Coming is, of course, a fraught issue as Christians debate the merits of pre- or post-millenialism, the Rapture and the value of biblical prophecy. I really don't want to get into those debates, but what Jesus taught us is that He will return to set the world right once and for all. Then, God's power will be on display and nothing will stand against it. We justly worry about what all this means and we also justly worry about those who try to anticipate that time or try to hurry it along. Very few things are as deadly as violence backed by religious delusion. We are right to be on our guard.

Yet, if we believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, good and loving, should we, also, not trust that this God's power will be used not only effectively, but justly? Is not God's might, by definition, just? Is not the Wisdom of God the most important guarantor of the just use of God's might? How can we fail to trust God's power, when we believe God to be good? And if God is good, can He fail to use his power to drive out evil from the world he created and restore goodness and life?

So, we look for the ultimate act of salvation- the restoration of God's universe and the return of humanity to its place in it. We can count on Jesus to have the wisdom to know what to do, but He must have the power and might to do it. As Christians, we trust that power and might will be used for good because of the God we serve. The vision of what that kingdom would look like is the subject of the next antiphon.

Veni, Veni, Adonai,
qui populo in Sinai legem dedisti
vertice in maiestate gloriae.

O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai's height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.


Friday, December 17, 2010

O Antiphons-O Wisdom

Welcome to the first installment of the O Antiphons series. As a rule, I'm going to quote either the Evening Prayer or the Alleluia verse version (depending on what I think about the version and its translation). I'll finish up the entry with the Latin and English of the O Come, O Come Emmanuel version. The source for my text is the page on the O-Antiphons.

Sapientia Altissimi,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

In this first O-Antiphon, we begin at the beginning, creation. And, at the very beginning, according to Proverbs 8, 22-31 and, in a different sense, John 1,1-5, we find Wisdom. In Proverbs, we find Wisdom spoken as the first born of the Creation, begotten before the beginnings of the universe, when there was nothing yet made- earth, seas, heavens. We find Wisdom participating in Creation 'like a master worker' (Proverbs 8, 30) and rejoicing with God in the sheer delight of creating and in what was created (Proverbs 8,30-31). Wisdom, the divine Wisdom was there from the beginning, involved in creation and involved with God. But, it almost sounds like Wisdom is a separate being from God in Proverbs, why do we think that Wisdom is title of Jesus as the Messiah?

The connection comes with the justly famous opening to John's Gospel which echoes Proverb's vision of Creation, only changing the terminology from Wisdom to the Logos, the Word. Logos is a rather more encompassing term than merely intelligible speech. It is closer to an organizing intelligence just like Proverb's Wisdom. As John says, the Word was with God and was God( John 1,1-2). The Word was there in the beginning and all things, all life, all light came into being through the Word (John 3-5). Just like Wisdom, the Word was not only a witness to creation, but a co-participant in creation. Indeed, John goes just a little farther than Proverbs and, not only identifies the Word as God, but declares that the Word became human in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Messiah. So, the Creator becomes part of His Creation as part of a dramatic effort to redeem it from its present state where humanity's weaknesses and their consequences reign supreme.

Now, that is mind-blowing. One day, over two thousand years ago, the Wisdom of God, that 'master-worker' in creation, who created all things we know and see, entered into His creation as a helpless and vulnerable baby in a provincial backwater in the Roman Empire to a mere carpenter and his wife. The divine becomes mundane, in the true sense of the word. But why?

That reason, I think, is addressed by the request in this antiphon- to teach us in the path of knowledge. Well, prudentia, is the what the Latin says which is a richer word than the rather flat translation of 'knowledge' we have here. What the divine wisdom teaches us isn't some kind of database of useful information nor is it mere trivia. It is what Proverbs means by Wisdom: a sense of one's real place in the universe. We are the created, we are not God. Any suggestion that we control our destiny, that we are in charge of our life is, at best, delusional when we are faced with the Creator God. As God asked Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38,1). Wisdom, true wisdom, tells us that we are not the defining intelligence in this world, God is because God created the heavens and earth. And Wisdom, the Logos, was right there in and with God.

An essential beginning step to faith is the startling realization that we are not, in fact, God. We have to begin with realizing that, whatever else is true, that we are not the centre of the universe, nor are we masters of it. That is a humbling, but necessary realization for us to make in these early days of the 21st century. All around us, voices tell us that we, each one of us, are the most important beings in the world. Wisdom, true wisdom, whispers to us that we are not gods, but, rather, we should look to the true God, the Creator of this exciting and beautiful universe. Only after we've realized this, can we find the path of wisdom which shows us how we can contribute to the world around us and, more importantly, to the redeemed world to come.

Veni, O Sapientia,
quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae
ut doceas et gloriae.

O Come, Thou Wisdom,
from on high,and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.


Monday, December 13, 2010

'O-Antiphon' Series- Coming December 17th

The last few days I've been thinking about the leadup to Christmas and how, amid the busyness of getting ready for the season, I can also keep in the Advent mode of reflection and contemplation. Then, it came to me: what about a series on the 'O-Antiphons' in the last week before Christmas. If anything would remind me of the expectation of Christ's coming, the 'O-Antiphons' should.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, the O-Antiphons are seven short verses sung before the Magnificat either in Evening Prayer or during Eucharist between December 17th and December 23rd. Each of the 'O-Antiphons' invokes the coming of the Messiah, beginning with a biblical title and ending with a petition. They are most popularly known in the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", even if the first verse really is the last in the series. This is the form in which I first encountered them and which I continue to cherish them. Yet, they are a staple of the monastic Advent experience (as mentioned by, among others, Kathleen Norris in her book, Cloister Walk) and they call us to a very different kind of preparation for the Christmas season.

So, what I propose to do is to post each antiphon on their appropriate day and to make a brief comment or two on them. My intention is not to be too tiresomely academic, but, rather, look for the spiritual meaning of each of the antiphons. So, I hope you'll join me for the O-Antiphon series starting on Friday.