Sunday, December 22, 2013
O Rex Gentium
King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makes one out of two, come to save man, whom You have made out of the dust of the earth!
Kingship is a bit of a tough sell these days, so this antiphon already starts with a discordant note for the modern listener. Kingship just feels so mediaeval and seems to go along with those things which cause people to dismiss Christianity as hopelessly outdated and irrelevant to these much more enlightened (and democratic) times. Seeing Jesus as King is more likely to cause people to turn off than it is to inspire. Yet, there is something about this title for Jesus which resonates differently than a mere king.
Notice that this antiphon celebrates Jesus as the King of the Gentiles. That is interesting on a quite a few levels, but, for our purposes, largely because of the persistent prophecies in the later books of the Old Testament which saw one of the primary signs of the coming Messiah to be the acknowledgement of Israel's priestly authority by the Gentiles (the nations). So, we get prophecies about the Gentiles pouring into Jerusalem to worship along side Israel at Mt. Zion. These magnificent images of peace in the early part of Isaiah make possible by the Gentiles coming to Zion and pounding their spears into pruning shears, but don't happen because the Gentiles are compelled. Instead, it is voluntary submission of all peoples to God's priestly people and, through them, to God himself which brings about this peace. This represents the restoration of the nations from the rift which tore them apart at Babel and it is Christ, as king of both Israel and the Gentiles, which bring together these two peoples together.
This unification of Israel and the Gentiels is further reinforced by the image of the cornerstone in this antiphon. The cornerstone of a building takes two walls, approaching at 90 degree angles, and makes them one, It also providing a major structural support for the whole edifice. Furthermore, Jesus refers to himself as the cornerstone which the builders rejected, which I'm sure we're expected to have in mind here. Yet, it is the function of the cornerstone joining of two into one which caught my attention. In this world of division and acrimony, we very much need a few cornerstones to draw us together. All to easily, we can divide the world into a chosen and righteous Israel (us) and an unchosen and damned Gentiles (them). We see this all the time as we watch liberals damn conservatives and conservatives return the favour as the same old conflicts flash through conventional and social media like periodic thunderstorms. It is a persistent tendency of people to divide themselves into different camps and wall themselves off from dissenting opinion. And that makes perfect sense to me. I don't know about you, but I'd really prefer to believe in my own righteousness, thank you very much and reject those who disagree with me as not worth listening to. Unfortunately, this antiphon suggests that all of us are, in fact, one, so separating out the unworthy is no longer our job or our concern. If God is the common king of us all, we have no call to divide into two, but rather seek its joining into one.
In the end, Israel and Gentile, liberal and conservative, believer and atheist, all of us share a common humanity. We are, even if only metaphorically, formed out of the same mud. We all need some kind of salvation from the mess that we've made of the world and our own lives. What this antiphon is saying is that, whatever our differences, we share the need for a solution and that solution is found in the same king. This king doesn't lead armies out to fight the forces of evil. Nor does he divide the people into the worthy and unworthy. Instead, he calls both Israel and the Gentiles to His mountain to share in the solution and in the joy of release from hostility. Peace will come to Israel and the Gentiles and, as I hope, to you and yours this season of Advent.