Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A final thought about the Great O’s.

Reading what I have written about the original series of the seven Great O's, I am struck by how deeply dependent they are on a particular culture of Bible reading. It goes without saying that it is not the predominant culture of our age.

Most modern people, even the most evangelical, read the Bible through filters put in place by the enlightenment, by the scientific revolution, by university-based academic study methods, and by a constantly enlarging base of historical knowledge. Which is to say, We are aware of the Bible as a text. This sounds almost absurd to say. Of course it is a text! What else could it be?

But for it to be a text, it must also be something we can investigate, an object separated from ourselves, over against which we can range ourselves and organize our reactions, responses, investigations, theories. The net result of our entry into the modern world through the historical revolutions named above is to change our relation to the Bible – indeed, to any text.

In a pre-modern culture the Bible has a different location in human experience. For our medieval ancestors the Bible was not primarily an object of consideration, to be studied, but the world of God into which one was invited to enter.

This was true at every level of participation in pre-modern Christian culture, but particularly for those who dedicated their lives to Christian service, monastics and mendicants but also “secular” clergy. The lives of such people were lived, to an extent we can hardly imagine, in a Bible-saturated world, mediated through the liturgical practice of monasteries and of the Church at large. In the course of a lifetime of listening and learning, they would have memorized large stretches of scripture, certainly the Psalms, and many major passages. In addition, the habit of lectio divina, which in those days was almost entirely focused on scripture, would have led most to know much if not most of the Bible by heart, and those passages not known to the level of recitation from memory would have been deeply embedded in the memory which can recall significant passages with the trigger of a word or phrase.

As regards memory the medieval world had an advantage over us. They did not value the new the way we do. We get a significant new Bible translation almost every generation it seems, certainly since the late 1800s. But what we gain in accuracy and freshness we lose in retention. There was a time when most English-speaking Protestant Christians knew large chunks of the King James Version by heart. Much has been lost in the communal culture of Christianity by abandoning the single-text model of scripture.

Medieval Christianity was single-text based with a vengeance. The Bible they used was the Vulgate translation of Jerome, with a few holdovers in the older parts of the liturgy from earlier Latin translations. This text was incredibly stable from the early 400's when the Vulgate was first promulgated until the time of the humanist scholars at the turn of the 1500's, a thousand years, half the history of Christianity. Everyone in Western Christianity was on the same biblical page for a millenium, so to speak. [The translation of the Bible into vernacular languages is a complex and wonderful story, but these translations did not assume a central ecclesial and cultural role until the Reformation.]

So what we see in the Great O’s is a special form of memory. Each of the antiphons combines several passages, evoked by a word or two or at most a phrase, which brings to mind the entire passage and its context. By juxtaposing them, the antiphon creates a rich meditation on the subject, which brings simultaneously into one’s consciousness two, three or even more scriptural passages and amalgamates them into a new, thoroughly scriptural and quite sophisticated theological reflection. And this was easily available not just to instructed individuals, but to a whole religious communal culture because of the commonality of liturgy and written word to all.

This kind of memory-based, communal theological thinking is almost impossible now. We no longer have the shared culture of centuries of everyone hearing or reading the same translation, of life-long memorization and living into the word of scripture that they had. So in order to begin to unlock some of the richness of these antiphons, we have to resort to learned study and think in historical, researched ways. I think an average medieval monastic probably would not have been able to write these antiphons. They are the work of a theological and poetic genius. But the average medieval monastic, certainly one who had been at it for ten to twenty years or more, would have understood their allusions immediately, and would have quickly appreciated their complex meanings. Whereas we have to dust off our concordances, or find them online, and then do the work of reconstruction.

Much has been gained by modern scripture study. I certainly rejoice in it. But much has also been lost by our exit from the ancient ways of experiencing scripture. One of the joys of monastic life for me, and I know for others as well, is (in addition to modern scripture study, of course) to live into the Bible not as a text, a book, an object, but as a World – the World of God’s Word, where our imaginations can use our instructed memories to build wonderful and deeper and deeper appreciations of God’s love and goodness from our increasing knowledge of the Word.

Friday, December 26, 2008

O Virgo virginum

December 23:
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem. Filiae Ierusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? For neither before you was there any seen like you, nor shall there be after: Daughters of Jerusalem, why do you marvel at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

The final Great O is entirely different from the preceding seven. That is because it was added after the original series was established, in England, to introduce the Virgin at the end of the Advent devotional cycle. For all that it is an addition, however, it is quite old. It is adapted in the wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem Christ A, often known as The Advent Lyrics, found in the Exeter Book manuscript, which was probably written at the end of the 10th Century, around 990 or so. That adaptation is worth study on its own, but not here (I can hear the sighs of relief as I am typing!).

The O Virgo is different both in form and in content from the others. The others introduce a title for Christ and then, as we have seen, gather a tightly woven group of quotes and references from the Vulgate which elucidate and clarify the scope of the title, ending with a call for Christ to come and aid us in that aspect of His rule.

The O Virgo is a little drama, a dialogue between the Daughters of Jerusalem and the pregnant Mary. The Daughters are surprised and question how the Virgin Birth can be, as it has never been seen before, nor will it be again. Mary serenely reassures them that what is about to happen is a divine mystery.

I find this dramatic scene reminiscent of the famous Quem queritis trope (“Whom do you seek?”, asked of the women who came to the tomb where Jesus had been buried). This four sentence narrative unit was introduced into the Easter Day liturgy in the Ninth Century, perhaps as part of the Carolingian reforms of worship. Within a century it had become a separate dramatic piece. It is, in fact, the beginning of modern western drama. Before long a similar Quem queritis was introduced into the Christmas liturgy, this time asked of the shepherds as they approached the stable. OHC uses a form of this little play as the first antiphon on the psalms for Christmas Day: “Whom do you behold, O shepherds, tell us, declare to us the tidings, on earth who has appeared? We saw the new-born Infant, and the choir of angels, praising the Lord together. Alleluia, alleluia.” It is customarily sung by us as a dialogue, the question sung by the choir on the cantor’s side, and the response on the other, with all joining in the Alleluias. Without knowing the origin of it, the monastery has moved instinctively in the same way that Tenth Century monks did.

My guess (I am not a liturgical scholar!) is that the O Virgo would seem to have had a similar origin. It sounds very much like the other fashionable little dramatic dialogues in vogue in the ninth and tenth centuries. It was probably added as an additional liturgical action piece, since people seemed to like that sort of thing. It was part of the liturgical movement of its day, and probably in response to people actually liking these little plays.

And the reason for its popularity is clear. The antiphon asks the question everyone asks of the Virgin Birth: How can it be? There has probably never been a time since the publication of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels that people did not ask this question. It is simply impossible from a human point of view. Which is precisely the point. In the birth of Jesus God is doing something new. He is breaking the rules, establishing a new humanity. As Adam and Eve were brought forth without reference to human parents, so the second Adam who ushers in the new humanity does not derive from business as usual childbirth either. At its base the Virgin Birth is not just about how one child was born, but is a statement of God’s power and capacity to bring the new into being, to transform the world, to upset the old and initiate a new creation. That is the divine mystery.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

O Emmanuel

December 22:
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the desire of all nations and their salvation: come and save us, O Lord our God

The clear source for the O Emmanuel is Isaiah 7:14: propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel. “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.” Emmanuel as a title only appears twice in the Hebrew scriptures, both times in Isaiah (the other is Isaiah 8:8), and in its quotation in the birth narrative in Matthew 1:23.

The other titles given are more common, but they repay pursuit. Legifer - lawgiver occurs in Isaiah 33:22, in an oracle about the glorious future that God will give his people: “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us:” Dominus enim iudex noster Dominus legifer noster Dominus rex noster ipse salvabit nos. This passage introduces as well the verbal element of savior: ipse salvabit nos, which is taken up in the antiphon’s last phrase.

“Desire of nations” - expectatio gentium is a little harder to pin down, but my guess is that it refers to Jacob’s oracle concerning Judah in Genesis 49:10: non auferetur sceptrum de Iuda et dux de femoribus eius donec veniat qui mittendus est et ipse erit expectatio gentium: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the peoples is his.”

Emmanuel in this antiphon is not simply the little child who is a sign in Isaiah. In Isaiah 7 the birth of the child is a sign to Ahaz the King of Judah to hold fast to God against the kings preparing to war against him. Immanuel means God-with-us, and the clear meaning of the child’s birth is that nothing will prevail against the favor God has for his people if they will be faithful to God no matter what the tribulations of the moment, because God is present among his people. In Matthew the angel appears to Joseph to tell him of Mary’s conception of the child by the Holy Spirit. This is not going to be welcome news at first to Joseph, and so Joseph is to hold fast in faithfulness, as Isaiah asked King Ahaz to do in the face of tribulations. The angel quotes Isaiah’s prophecy directly to Joseph. In Christian tradition the idea of God-with-us has developed from God’s protection of the people in time of war to God’s own presence in his world, bringing it back through lawful rule to its salvation, in the Incarnation, the God-with-us, the Word made flesh.

This last of the original series of Great O’s also reinforces the social and political message of the series. The child to be born will be, by implication, the fulfillment of Jacob’s promise of universal rule, the savior whose righteous law is what all peoples desire and the culmination of the ancient promise of God to his people.

O Emmanuel, you paradox at the heart of our faith, a child and a king, an infant and a lawgiver, for whom have longed since the beginnings of human confusion, Come and give us the law we need, Come and be the king we need, Come and fill our desire for the human future we so fervently pray for.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Advent break...

I didn't write the entry for "O Emmanuel" yesterday, nor the one for "O Virgin of Virgins" today.

The reason is that I helped with the funeral of a dear woman at The Church of St. Edward the Martyr, which necessitated a trip to New York City yesterday and the return today, in the cold and wet weather, on a not quite impossibly crowded train up the Hudson River, which is getting its act together to freeze over.

Mary Wilmot was 101 years old. She was born in Jamaica and came to the United States to find a better life. She found that life, with a wonderful family, and a good marriage to a man who by all reports was a sweet and wonderful gentleman, who unfortunately predeceased her by many years. I loved her spirit and her character. She loved to dance, and at her 100th birthday party at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem she danced the night away, putting the rest of us to shame.

Her funeral had seven priests in attendance and a full house of family and friends. The burial was in Paramus, New Jersey, and we got only mildly lost once or twice getting there. The repast was ample, no dainty little plates of finger food here, but chicken and ham and macaroni and cheese and rice and beans and collard greens and salad and rolls and three kinds of cake, and not small cakes either. So when we got back from the cemetery with a worked-up appetite, the ladies of the Church were ready!

I am preaching at the Monastery Christmas Midnight Mass tomorrow, so I may not get to the final two antiphons until sometime after. But I will finish the series!

Meanwhile, to everyone who reads this blog, I pray that the blessing of the Christ Child will be yours, that your heart will be opened as that Little One has opened so many hearts before, and that the love of Christ will grow and bear fruit in your life.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

O King of Nations

December 21:
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of nations and their desire, the Cornerstone, uniting both in one: come and save mankind, whom you formed of clay.

This antiphon’s meditation is on the function of the King, taking up the Davidic identity of the Messiah once again. He is to be universal, yearned for, one whose strength and stability are foundational, and whose stoney nature gives the necessary strength to us who, formed of clay, have no strength on our own.

Jeremiah 10:7 is probably the source for the title Rex Gentium: “Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For that is your due; among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is no one like you:” Quis non timebit te o rex gentium tuum est enim decus inter cunctos sapientes gentium et in universis regnis eorum nullus est similis tui.

Their Desire is from Haggai 2:7: movebo omnes gentes et veniet desideratus cunctis gentibus et implebo domum: “And I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.” Note that the NRSV here translates the title as treasure.

The Cornerstone may come from Isaiah 28:16: "Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: "One who trusts will not panic:" Ecce ego mittam in fundamentis Sion lapidem lapidem probatum angularem pretiosum in fundamento fundatum. Qui crediderit non festinet.

But the image of Jesus as the cornerstone is one of the key christological images of the New Testament, picked up in all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark 12:10, Matthew 21:42, Luke 20:17) as well as in Acts 4:11. It also figures in Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:6. It is from Psalm 118:22-23 (Psalm 117 in the Vulgate numeration): “ The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes:” Lapis quem reprobaverunt aedificantes factus est in caput anguli. A Domino factum est istud et hoc mirabile in oculis nostris.

And then, we are formed of clay. This is clearly from the second creation story in Genesis 2:7: Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae et inspiravit in faciem eius spiraculum vitae et factus est homo in animam viventem: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” It is tempting to look to the prophetic tradition for the image of God’s people as the clay and God as the potter, but for that image the Vulgate uses another word for clay: instead of limum, lutum.

But the key to understanding all these images is the phrase “uniting both in one”. The common theme of all the images is that the coming Christ will bring disparate, fractile things into unity, solidity: he will unite nations under one king, provide a common desire to which they are all drawn, become the single cornerstone on which the stresses of a stone building can rest secure, give the weak clay of created human nature the promise of the strong stone of the redeemed human nature in the risen Christ. This image finds its clearest expression in Ephesians 2:13-14, and in the context of bringing warring nations and peoples together: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 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:” Nunc autem in Christo Iesu vos qui aliquando eratis longe facti estis prope in sanguine Christi. Ipse est enim pax nostra qui fecit utraque unum et medium parietem maceriae solvens inimicitiam in carne sua: Note the phrase taken up so priminently in the antiphon: utraque unum.

The coming Christ is the king for the nations, whose strength brings stability and peace and gives us, weak as we are, a hope that we are more than the clay from which we have been formed.

So much of the politics of the world rests on convincing people that this or that ideology will bring unity and strength to people who are fractured and weak. The history of the twentieth century should warn us of the dangers of that kind of politics. But it is nothing new. Demagogues have been appealing to this desire of the nations since the dawn of time. It is the genius of the messianic hope to place all these would-be saviors under the judgment of the better one who is to come, and to warn us when we want to follow one political savior or another that none of these folks is ultimate. None of them is attractive enough or strong enough or stable enough or wise enough to give us an ultimate answer. And if we do give them the trust due only to the Messiah, the result is more likely to be a gulag or an Auschwitz or a party despotism or a great leap forward which is actually a great leap backward, and all of it saturated in blood, as it is the promised fulfillment of human longing. Placed in us at the moment when the breath of God animated the clay we are still so close to, that longing is God's gift to us, the hope that keeps the human race striving after better rule, better politics, a more just world.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Dayspring

December 20:
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Dayspring, brightness of the light everlasting and Sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

The image of the rising sun to describe the advent of a hoped for, just savior is probably as old and as universal as the longing itself. Sunrise is nature’s own way of giving hope, as each new day brings the possibilities of better things. And so it is in Scripture. There are so many images of light.

But our antiphon in fact arises (if I may be permitted the pun) from a New Testament source: the Canticle of Zechariah, otherwise known as the Benedictus, in Luke 1:78-79: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." The Vulgate text makes it unmistakably the source: Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri: in quibus visitavit nos, oriens ex alto: Illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent.

This text is one of the most familiar in the monastic liturgy, being recited daily at Lauds from at least the time of Benedict in the sixth century, and likely before. In the Anglican tradition it is recited daily at Morning Prayer. So every morning every monk, and every observant daily office-reciting Anglican, and I am sure many another praying Christian as well, repeats this prophecy of John the Baptist’s father.

The sources of the other images are not as straightforward, but not hard to find, either. From Habakkuk 3:4 we have Splendor eius ut lux erit, and from Wisdom 7:26, candor est enim lucis æternæ. Doubtless there are other sources as well. The sol justitiae probably comes from Malachi 4:2: Et orietur vobis timentibus nomen meum Sol iustitiae, et sanitas in pennis eius: "But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings."

Light is the image that dominates here. The coming of the Messiah is a time when the lights which had dimmed will brighten again, when a new day will dawn and life will have another chance. I have had a few times like that in my life, when what I really needed was a whole new light to begin again. The world gets old. Our lives get old, things wear out, depression sets in.

The image of people sitting in darkness is so true. It is remarkable how many people just sit around in darkened rooms, even on a lovely day, when the sky is clear and the air is fresh. You would think that people would rejoice in the light, but they don’t always. Sometimes we have created a comfortable little place for ourselves, away from the light, away from the fresh air, something filled with our own stuff, our own space for our own undisturbed selfness. Sometimes this darkness is an external correlative to depression or illness or unhappiness or failure. I think this great antiphon challenges that. It invites us to look away from ourselves, to the east, so to speak, to the rising sun, and to let something new in, something that will shake up our darkness, whether it be born of pain or is simply a comfy but still self-involved nook or cranny, which will let in the light and give us new life. Which we need. Our own life is never enough by itself. At the most basic level, at the level of the insufficiency of ourselves to be the center of our own lives, we need saving.

It is perhaps worth noting that this light-centered antiphon always falls on or a day before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the light is brief, and depending on how far north you are, weak.

Friday, December 19, 2008

O Key of David

December 19:
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel,you open and no one can close, and you close and no one can open: come and bring the prisoners out of the prison, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

The symbols in this antiphon are both symbols of power: the key and the scepter. The key is about access, freedom and restriction. The scepter is about the royal monopoly on force, in other words, on sovereignty. They are both aspects of the Expected One, whose reign will liberate and regulate the world with justice.

The antiphon hews closely to texts from Isaiah. The first is Isaiah 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” The Latin makes the resemblance clear: Et dabo clavem domus David super humerum eius: et aperiet, et nor erit qui claudat; et claudet, et non erit qui aperiat.

No medieval Christian could approach this figure of the Key, with its power of opening and closing, without thinking of the power of the keys to the kingdom given to Peter and his successors, which can bind and loose in heaven what is bound and loosed on earth. And so this passage makes an oblique reference to the entrusting of such vast authority to a servant of the Lord. The key in Isaiah is entrusted to Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who will become the new steward in the palace of King Hezekiah, replacing the dishonest steward Shebna. Eliakim will have the authority that goes with his office and will discharge it honestly. What he opens none can close, and what he closes none can open. Peter is such a steward, as are his successors, or so one hopes. Is this a (very) oblique criticism of some of the occupants of the Chair of Peter, Shebnas from whom the keys will be taken and given to new Eliakims? An interesting question. One does not usually look for the critical eye in an antiphon, but perhaps it is here.

The prisoners in the dungeon, whom the antiphon asks to be liberated, are from Isaiah 42. This passage is from the first Servant Song in Isaiah. The Lord says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness:” Ut aperires oculos caecorum, et educeres de conclusione vinctum. This Servant is the mild and righteous ruler, who is not turbulent or violent: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

The key and the liberation of the prisoners have clear sources. But what about the scepter? As our poet seems quite secure in the prophetic environment of Isaiah, let’s look there. There is only one use of sceptrum in the Vulgate translation of Isaiah, in 9:4: “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” Iugum enim oneris , et virgam humeri eius, et sceptrum exactoris eius superasti, sicut in die Madian. Not only a scepter, but a virga, reminiscent of the Radix Iesse! And who are these people who are being liberated? The rest of the passage (Isaiah 9:1-7) will tell us. They are none other than “The people who walked in darkness” who “have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.” The same as the light deprived people in prison. And who is the One who will take up this scepter wrongly wielded and make it right? "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

This antiphon is about power, about how power is used rightly by a sovereign and by his ministers. And what are the marks of authentic power from God? Eliakim is to be “as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” And the new sovereign is to be born with the attributes of wisdom by which he will exercise his mighty office.

I can’t help but think of two great pieces of music as I ponder this magnificent meditation on power and its potential to liberate and establish righteous justice. The first is obvious, perhaps: Handel’s magnificent chorus “For unto us a child is born” from Messiah. Who cannot be moved by this beautifully happy celebration of the child to come, of whom it is sung, “and the government will be upon his shoulders”?

The second is perhaps not so obvious, but it brings chills to my spine every time I hear it. It is the opening of the prison in the finale of the first act of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. At the pleading of Leonore (herself a savior figure) Rocco, the honest jailer, opens the doors and the prisoners tentatively move toward the light and fresh air which they have been denied in their darkened prison:

O welche Lust! In freier Luft
den Atem leicht zu heben!
Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben.

And then more softly, in perfect choral harmony, words that express so movingly the emotion of every prisoner who has ever been given a taste of what a free life might be:

O Himmel! Rettung! Welch’ ein Glück!
O Freiheit! Freiheit!

Every time I hear this second chorus I not only get chills in my spine, but I weep. This is to me the most perfect musical expression of what the Clavis David promises: the righteous scepter, the legitimate power of a seemingly weak savior (a child in Isaiah) which empowers the honest, faithful steward to turn the key which opens the lock to bring us out of the darkness. And not only out of darkness, but out of the ultimate darkness, out of the shadow of death, that last and most Davidic of all references, from his own 23rd psalm, the psalm of David’s own deliverance.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

O Root of Jesse

December 18:
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 Root of Jesse, you stand for an ensign of the people, before you kings will shut their mouths, and for you the Gentiles will seek: come and deliver us, and do not tarry.

Most of us know the Radix Jesse in the form of the Jesse Tree, a popular theme in medieval art, perhaps most famously in the exquisite window of Chartres Cathedral. It pictures Jesus as the fruit of the great lineage of the family of King David, beginning with David's father, Jesse.

The antiphon straightforwardly develops quotes from Isaiah 11, the famous chapter which predicts the coming of the righteous king: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. " In Latin the first verse is a clear source: Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse, et flos de radice eius ascendit. As is verse 10: In die illa radix Iesse, qui stat in signum populaorum, ipsum gentes deprecabuntur, et erit sepulchrum eius gloriosum. "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 antiphon seems almost complete as a deft reworking of these two verses.

And between Isaiah's verses come two of the most sublime descriptions of the coming rule of the Expected One in all literature: "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." Which is what we have desired of rulers since the beginning of time. And then, the Peaceable Kingdom: "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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 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." The scripturally saturated heart will not fail to notice these qualities of the one to rise from the Root of Jesse. They are the eternal hope of Israel in the covenant with the House of David, and lie at the base (one might say, the root) of the understanding of the Messiah.

But what about the kings shutting their mouths? Where does that come from? There is a dramatic situation behind the antiphon which is not precisely equivalent to the Isaiah passage. It is a conflict which the one to come will resolve, the conflict with noisy kings and their instruments of force.

As I was meditating on this today, what came to me was Psalm 2, parts of which clearly foreshadow (certainly in the medieval mind, the Psalms predate Isaiah) the messianic predictions of Isaiah:

1 Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?
2 Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt, and the princes plot together, *
against the LORD and against his Anointed?
3 "Let us break their yoke," they say; *
"let us cast off their bonds from us."
4 He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.
5 Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.
6 "I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion."
7 Let me announce the decree of the LORD: *
he said to me, "You are my Son; this day have I begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.
9 You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery."
10 And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Submit to the LORD with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;
12 Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

The rod in verse 9 is a virga, but is it the rod of Isaiah, or is it a different rod, a rod of iron, all business and war? Even more apposite is verse 7: Dominus dixit ad me: Filius meus es tu: Ego hodie genui te. Christians cannot read this verse without understanding that it prefigures the Incarnation, which is the point of the Root of Jesse after all.

The surprise? Perhaps it is in the way in which the kings are made to shut their mouths and the nations come seeking Him. That central section of Isaiah is present to the instructed scriptural consciousness by implication. Not in the rod of iron, the virga ferrea of the psalm, but the virga which confers genetic legitimacy on the Just Ruler who is to come. His weapons are not the iron of war but the Gifts of the Spirit of the Lord. His reign is not simply one of earthly peace, the absence of armed conflict, but the great Shalom which will restore the paradisal condition. Matthew's genealogy of Christ goes back to Abraham, but Luke's all the way to the radix, the first father of us all, Adam, "son of God". The One To Come is not simply another competent ruler and war chieftain. He is the one whose legitimate Messianic descent will restore the hopes of us all, which is why politicians will finally shut up and peoples come running to find him. As should we. And please hurry: Jam noli tardare!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

O Adonai

December 17:
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the law on Sinai: come and redeem us with an outstretched arm!

In the second Great O antiphon we become aware that this series will pursue a short course in what German theologians call Heilsgechichte -- the history of salvation. If the first is a meditation on creation and the common aspirations of spiritually alive people, whether pagan or not, the second places us squarely in the beginning of Israel's encounter with God. The antiphon references five aspects of God in relation to Moses and to the people of Israel.

The first is the name of God. Adonai is the Jewish euphemism for the tetragrammaton -- the four letter name of God revealed to Moses on Sinai. It is Hebrew for Lords, plural to emphasize the ultimacy of God, and is read in place of the tetragrammaton wherever it appears in the Hebrew scriptures. The Vulgate -- the Latin Bible universally read in the medieval Western Church -- generally renders Dominus for the tetragrammaton. In only two places does it use Adonai -- at the self-revelation of God to Moses in Exodus 6:3, and, interestingly, in Judith's song of triumph, Judith 16:16, in which she celebrates the strength of God in overcoming Holofernes.

The second is the title dux. Our word "duke" evolved from it, but in the fourth century, when Jerome made his translation, it would refer to a war leader, a general leading troops. It was not an honorific or a hereditary title at that point, but a function of the necessary business of fighting. It was still that in the early middle ages -- the medieval dux was a familiar figure, not perhaps always welcome, but you hoped he would be there when trouble came. God is here honored not simply as "leader", which is a little weak, but as the war leader of the house of Israel. This would seem to refer not so much to the escape from Egypt but perhaps to the wandering in the desert, certainly to the conquest of the Promised Land.

Third is the apparition to Moses in the burning bush. And fourth, the giving of the Law at Sinai. Both need little comment, except to note their equivalence as explanations of what God did in the "Moses event".

The fifth requires some unpacking, however. "Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm." The outstretched arm is a reference to God's gift of victory to his people occurring in this exact phrase, brachio extento, at least ten times in the Vulgate, beginning with its first appearance in Deuteronomy 5:15, in which God led the people of Israel out of Egypt, in the context of the fourth commandment, establishing the Sabbath: et eduxerit te inde Dominus Deus tuus in manu forti, et brachio extento -- "and from whence the Lord your God led you with a might hand and an outstretched arm". The prophets use the phrase extensively and broaden it to include other interventions by God on Israel's behalf. So the fifth is a reference, somewhat veiled, to the Exodus itself.

If there is a meditative surprise here, perhaps it is in the order in which these events are given in the antiphon. In the scriptures they occur in the sequence burning bush (3), revelation of the Name (1), the escape from Egypt (5), the giving of the Law (4), and God's military leadership (2).

The author of this antiphon has clearly another sequence than the historical in mind. The first clause combines the saving action of Adonai in the revelation of his identity with His identity as giver of military success. No doubt the people of Israel found confirmation of the Mosaic proclamation in the concrete realization of victory over the Canaanites, and perhaps our poet is adopting their point of view. The central section, the subordinate clause beginning with qui, dwells on Moses' centrality in this encounter with God, at the bush and in the giving of the law. These are placed in central, equivalent, positions structurally, leading us to wonder about their connection with each other: the unexplainable mysteries of God's presence in nature and the mysteries of humans keeping the Law of God, transforming our nature into something unexpectedly holy. Then the meditation returns to the display of power, this time the saving power God extends in history to his people, which we need now as much as then. The poet is identifying us with the ancient Israelites, looking for confirmation of God's identity and revelation in acts of saving power for us, his people, as of old.

So the movement of this thought pattern is identity (in Name [A] and in action [B]) - revelation in two parts , the burning bush [C1] and the Law given on Mount Sinai [C2] - return to action [B], and by implication, restoration of our confidence in the Name of the One [A]. An incomplete chiasmic structure (A-B-C1-C2-B) leaving us to fill in the missing A. Which is, of course, so hauntingly chanted at the beginning of the antiphon, and which is what we will remember first: O Adonai.

O Adonai, you who trust us with your Name, who led our ancestors in the battles that won them the Promised Land, who appear both in mysterious events we cannot explain and in the mundane activities of everyday life, making the smallest act of law-keeping an encounter with You on the holy mountain: Come and save us now, with the mighty arm of your unfathomable and unknowable power, so gracious to us in our need.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O Wisdom

From the English usage on December 16:
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

O Wisdom, you came out of the mouth of the Most High, and reach from one end to another, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence. (trans. from OHC's A Monastic Breviary).

The O's begin with a meditation on wisdom, the wisdom proceeding from the mouth of God which orders creation. This is the theology of the Word, in Hebrew dabar, in Greek logos, the foundational insight of the Judeo-Christian tradition which directly links the world we experience to the mind of God. So our approach to the saving work of God starts with the assertion that what is to be saved was created and is already foundationally in tune with its creator/savior.

The coming into the world of this wisdom is a kind of homecoming. I sometimes wonder if the parables Jesus tells of a householder going off on a journey and coming back unexpectedly, not knowing what he will find when he returns, are not an indication of God's experience in finding the world he made not exactly perfectly in tune with him. Certainly John (1:10-11) makes that explicit.

I am reading a new, interesting, somewhat abstruse book on Roman paganism by Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. Ando's starting point is the assertion that the Romans did not have myths, or at least when they needed them, they borrowed them. From the Greeks, of course. What they did have was praxis, the right performance of ritual. This praxis permeated everything in life. Their praxis can be shown to have changed as they noted what did and didn't work. Ando argues that Roman pagan religion was profoundly experiential, in that what they were interested in was discovering the links between the phenomenal world and the spiritual realities which lay beyond it. Each ritual act was observed in its intention, its performance and its effect. Just as the Hebrews and their Christian descendants did, the Romans were looking for the word behind the world. They were looking for the wisdom that would enable them to act prudently, to line themselves up with the relevant spiritual powers and find protection and success by doing so.

This doesn't seem so odd to me. I suppose that trying to line yourself up with the divine is the universal desire of humankind. So for me, this first antiphon is a bridge to the experience of all our ancestors, going back to the dawn of consciousness. They all wanted wisdom, they all felt and thought that the world we are in proceeds from and operates according to the will of the divine one(s), and that our job is to get in touch with that and speak and act accordingly, which is prudence.

It gives me great comfort to imagine that my desire for wisdom and prudence is shared by all serious thinking and feeling people of every age, even the painters of the caves of Altamira, even the worshipers of the Venus of Willendorf, even the obsessive-compulsive Romans trying so hard to get it right so that they could go out and conquer some more of their neighbors, near and far. It is profoundly human. Judaism and Christianity are not discontinuous at all with the great human longings for wisdom.

The Wisdom we ask to come to us is mighty in its actions. But it is also sweet, which is perhaps the surprise word here. For on the whole pagan religion is about fear, seeking to avoid trouble -- famine, disease, injury, natural and human disaster, childlessness, death -- which is the lot of every human, and knowing that even if you get too close to the virtue of the divine one(s), you may not be able to bear it. And if it is not about fear, it is about power -- getting it, keeping it, using it. The divine is powerful and dangerous, and so prudence is the right gift to ask for. But Jesus, now there's a different kind of power. The helpless child, poor and insignificant. The teacher whose words and deeds only get him into trouble with the higher-ups, and anyway, he spent his time with people who really don't count. The life given on the Cross. The surprise ending of the Resurrection and the astonishing (eventual) victory of a community at least nominally centered on the Love, not the Danger, of God. Blessed are the meek. How very different from the Romans, indeed, from practically everyone else, who have the sense to ask for the sensible gifts, not mourning, poverty, persecution. In Jesus the world of desire and power is turned on its head.

So sweetness is part of real prudence too. Not only the avoidance of danger, but learning the wisdom of delight, of beauty, of kindness, of compassion, of agape, disinterested love for the sake of the other. Learning the sweetness of not just loving the poor but being one of them. Come and teach us the way (now there's a loaded word for Christians!) of prudence.

Advent and the Great O's

Well, it is now more than halfway through Advent and I haven't written anything. So I thought I would make up for that by writing a brief meditation on each of the "Great O" antiphons, which in the Anglican tradition begin today.

These antiphons are called "Great O's" because each begins with the exclamation "O", which when chanted in plainsong is a rather long musical phrase. They seem to date back to the seventh or eighth centuries and were written to adorn the sung monastic office in Advent. There are seven Great O's in the continental liturgical tradition, eight in the English rite. The eighth is a meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The seven first antiphons each begins with a title from the Old Testament tradition which describes a saving aspect of God: Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of the Nations, Emmanuel. The saving action of each of these is briefly characterized, followed by a brief prayer which begins: Veni, Come, and accomplish that great work in our time. The eighth does not follow this threefold format, but is a brief dialogue between Mary and the daughters of Jerusalem on the mystery of the Incarnation.

I love these antiphons. I first learned them (all unknowing) as perhaps you did, in the great hymn in our tradition, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The music for the Great O's in OHC's monastic office is beautiful, melodic, contemplative. We began singing them this evening.