Friday, December 30, 2011

Giving Thanks

As I complete my 14th year as an Oblate of the Order of Julian of Norwich, I rejoice and celebrate with all my OJN sisters and brothers the anniversary of the founding of the Order by Fr. John Julian, OJN, on December 30, 1985. That day The Rt. Rev. W. Bradford T. Hastings, Episcopal Visitor of the Order and Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Connecticut, heard the solemn profession of life vows by Fr. John Julian, formerly John Douglas Swanson, and invested him with the staff and medallion of the Guardian of the Order. 

Fr. John Julian wrote earlier: "On a personal level, it is the blossoming of a flower whose seed was planted almost an immeasurable age ago. But you will understand that even after what seemed sometimes an interminable wait, it is still fraught with awe and dread. One hears the echo of Mother Julian's words: 'The soul may do no more than seek, suffer, and trust, and this is wrought in the the Holy Ghost; and the clearness of finding is of his special grace when it is his will."

Those last words resonate and echo, especially today, in the hearts of each of us who is a Member, Oblate or Associate of the Order. We've each been drawn into this common enterprise in many different ways: some determined and direct, some after much procrastinating or doubt, some in complete surprise. But here we find ourselves trying each day to "seek, suffer, and trust", by the nudging of the Spirit, to live our vows of holy poverty, chastity, obedience and prayer. Looking back on fourteen years -- and I know many feel the same as I do -- I'm not sure what I'd have done without the Order and the support of devoted and beloved sisters and brothers. Scott Peck opens his book The Road Less Traveled with the words "Life is difficult." He surely wasn't kidding, and anyone who's tried living by the Spirit knows the depth of those words in spades. 

Thanks be to God that Fr. John Julian was attentive to the call, despite many overwhelming odds, and by the Spirit's inspiration provided a means by which so many of us could come to know Mother Julian and drink from the springs of her amazing wisdom. And in the process, we have found ourselves, by God's "courteousness and love", as Julian would put it, growing ever closer to God and to each other, and reaching out with that same courteousness and love to the Church and the world. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Corruptio Optimi Pessima

One of the Latin phrases which has stuck with me from my seminary days is the one above: "Corruptio optimi pessima" which, roughly translated means, "The corruption of what is best is the worst tragedy". What you see in the photo at the right, brawling Christian Greek and Armenian monks at the shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem, during the very octave of the Christmas celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, is for me the epitome of the saying above. How did it start? It seems that it was because one of the monks sweeping with a broom got just a bit over the "boundary" of the territory of the other group of monks! Then all hell broke loose, as, unfortunately, it has done a number of other times in the past. So great is the traditional antipathy between the two groups of monks, I understand, (and I don't think it's limited to just these two groups) that the keys to the shrine are in the keeping of the Muslims!

"Disedifying" is a polite word that comes to mind for such goings-on. Bad enough that this took place in that particular sacred place and during this particular week. Even more shameful is that it took place only weeks before the annual Week of Prayer for Christian & Interfaith Unity. What in the world were these monks thinking?! As if Christianity these days doesn't have enough bad press! I hardly think that the great monastic abbas and ammas of the desert would look on such actions with anything but scorn and disappointment.

These thoughts were running through my mind as I read the excerpt from the Second Letter of John at Morning Prayer today: "The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Fathr and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, in truth and love...But now, dear lady, I ask you not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning -- you must walk in it..."

I invite you to join me in praying for these monks, as well as for the whole human family:

Loving God, you created us in your own image 
and redeemed us through Jesus your Son:
Look with compassion on the whole human family;
take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts;
break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle
and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; 
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you
in harmony. Amen.

"This Meddlesome Cleric"

Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, preaches in the Cathedral on Christmas Morning, 1170:

“'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.' The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth.  So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. 'But think for a while on the meaning of this word 'peace.' Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.' So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.
Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men. 
Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.
I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and o£ the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

(From Murder in the Cathedral, Interlude, by T.S. Eliot),

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sadness For the Children

Today's feast of the Holy Innocents hasn't much lifted my spirits today. Perhaps it's because of this week's news of two particularly brutal incidents: first, the kidnap, murder, and savage dismemberment of a 9 year old girl, and then the tragic fire in Connecticut which claimed the lives of three young daughters and their grandparents. In either case, I can't begin to imagine the depth of the pain, the desolation, the emptiness which has seized the hearts and lives of the families left behind. How does anyone deal with such tragedy? Not a shred of good, for anyone, seems even possible in the face of the two realities. Or, for that matter, in the face of any similar violence and death dealt to children or young ones, whether accidental or deliberate.

Faith tells me otherwise, but what a stretch I'm feeling to accept that! The graphic words of the prophet Isaiah in the first Lesson of Morning Prayer did bring some comfort, probably because of the graphic imagery which Isaiah uses to bring it to a more personal level. "...the Lord has comforted God's people, and will have compassion on God's suffering ones." When the people object to him that God has forsaken them, forgotten them, Isaiah replies: "...Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands...

It's unknown who all was actually involved in the massacre of the Holy Innocents, reported by Matthew (2:16-18), or how many children were slaughtered. Some estimate it may have been as few as six or as many as twenty. The numbers really don't matter, in a way: neglect, abuse, violence, or the death of a single child or young one is far too costly and is cause for unbridled lamentation. It helps, perhaps, to be reassured that the compassionate, loving God never forgets a child or young one, indelibly imaged in the palms of God's creative hand and in God's heart of love. Nevertheless...

And so we fervently pray on this day: "Receive...into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Savior...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Will The Real "Beloved Disciple" Please Stand Up

St. John the Evangelist (יוחנן Yoḥanan =  Yahweh is gracious) lived c. 1 - c. 100 A.D.). John is the conventionally named author of the fourth Gospel. Traditionally he has also been identified with the author of the other Johannine works in the New Testament: three Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation, written by a John of Patmos. He is likewise referred to as John the Apostle and the Beloved Disciple, mentioned in the Gospel. However, at least some of these connections have been highly debated since about 200 A.D.

John's Gospel speaks of an unnamed "Beloved Disciple" of Jesus who bore witness to his message. The editors of the Gospel seem interested in the author's anonymity. Apparently this disciple of Jesus had not been well known, but had greatly outlived Peter.

Surely the apostle John was a historical figure, one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church after Jesus' death. Some scholars believe that he was martyred along with his brother, James (Acts 12:1-2), although many other scholars doubt this. The tradition that John lived to old age in Ephesus seems to have developed in the late 2nd century, although the tradition does appear in the last chapter of the Gospel. By the late 2nd century, the tradition was held by most Christians.

The late Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S., was/is, if not the greatest Johannine biblical scholar, certainly one of the world's top experts on John the Evangelist. His monumental two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John (Volumes 29 and 29A of The Anchor Bible series) is still the standard in biblical study of the fourth Gospel. In his Introduction, Fr. Brown, in the simple, clear style for which he was noted, says this about the person wrote the Gospel of John: "...A distinctive figure in the primitive Church preached and taught about Jesus, using the raw material of a tradition of Jesus' works and words, but shaping this material to a particular theological cast and expression. Eventually he gathered the substance of his preaching and teaching into a Gospel, following the traditional pattern of the baptism, the ministry, and the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Since he continued to preach and teach after the edition of the Gospel, he subsequently made a second edition of his Gospel, adding more material and adapting the Gospel to answer new problems. After his death a disciple made a final redaction of the Gospel, incorporating other material that the evangelist had preached and taught, and even some of the material of the evangelist's co-workers. A theory of two editions and a final redaction by a disciple would not be extraordinary among the theories of the composition of biblical books..."

And so, the final redactor of the Gospel of John could say in conclusion: "...there are many other things that Jesus did. Yet, were they ever to be written down in detail, I doubt that there would be room enough in the whole world for the books to record them." (John 21:25) Fr. Brown's comment, at the end of the second volume of his commentary, is: "...having added another long commentary to the already ample bibliography on the Fourth Gospel, and still feeling that much has been left unsaid, the present writer is not in the least inclined to cavil about the accuracy of the Johannine redactor's plaint that no number of books will exhaust the subject."

Though we may never know exactly who the "Beloved Disciple" was that wrote the Gospel of John, Fr. Brown assures us of one thing: the general message which St. John wanted to convey. "Serving as a preface to the Gospel, the Prologue is a hymn that encapsulates John's view of Christ. A divine being (God's Word [1:1-14], who is also the light [1:5,9] and God's only Son [1:14,18]) comes into the world and becomes flesh. Although rejected by his own, he empowers all who do accept him to become God's children, so that they share in God's fullness -- a gift reflecting God's enduring love that outdoes the loving gift of the Law through Moses..." (An Introduction To The New Testament, ABRL Doubleday, 1997)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Crowned With Love

Stephanos, in Greek, means crown, wreath. How apt a name for St. Stephen the Deacon, first martyr of the Christian community. Luke the Evangelist tells Stephen's story in Chapters 6:1-8:1 of his Acts of the Apostles, noting his connection with Saul, persecutor of the early Christian community, who later underwent a dramatic conversion and became St. Paul the Apostle. St. Fulgentius (c. 465 - 527 or 533), Bishop of Ruspe in North Africa, also writes beautifully of St. Stephen in one of his sermons:

"...Strengthened by the power of his love, [Stephen] overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won the persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition. Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen  he exalts, with Stephen he reigns...This, surely, is the true life, beloved, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen's death, and Stephen delights in Paul's companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen's love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul's love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven. Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. Whoever walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides, protects, and brings the one who loves to the journey's end. Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together." 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

God's Deepest, Most Beautiful Word

The Nativity, by He Qi

Throughout Advent you and I, who are the Church, have longed and prayed in hope for the coming of Jesus the Holy One. The word for “coming” in Greek, parousía, is a verb form, and refers not so much to the past, as in the birth at Bethlehem, nor to the future, as at the end-times culmination of our world, but rather to the very real on-goingness of God’s coming now, continuously, into our lives through Jesus. That “coming” is God’s promise over and over again in Scripture, and the uniqueness, believability and power of God’s message lies in the fact that what God promised really happened and continues to happen in Jesus. But as we ponder the birth of Jesus and its implications for us, we realize that the hope which this great event brings isn’t just a warm, cuddly kind of hope, as the surrounding culture likes to depict it, but rather a sobering hope.
Back in 1990 I read this little Advent meditation: “Two women who were dressed in their finest were having lunch at a very exclusive restaurant. A friend saw them and came over to their table to greet them. ‘What’s the special occasion?’, she asked. One of the women said, ‘We’re having a birthday party for the baby in our family. He’s 2 years old today.’ ‘But where’s the baby?’, the friend asked. The child’s mother answered, ‘Oh, I dropped him off at my mother’s house. She’s taking care of him until the party’s over. It wouldn’t have been any fun with him along.’ How ridiculous -- a birthday celebration for a child who wasn’t welcome at his own party! Yet, when you stop to think about it, that’s no more foolish than going through the Christmas season, with all of its festivities, without remembering the One whose birth we are supposed to be honoring. And that’s the way many people celebrate Christmas. In all the busyness -- the party-going, gift-shopping, and family gatherings -- the One whose birthday they are commemorating is almost completely forgotten.
It’s quite interesting to note that none of the readings on today’s Christmas feast mentions the birth event of Jesus in Bethlehem, other than a very general reference in John’s Gospel: “...and the Word became flesh…”  Rather, the Epistle passage from the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-4) seems to act as a bridge between the proclamations of Isaiah in the first reading (52:7-10) and of St. John in the Gospel reading (1:1-14), connecting the profound realities about the Messiah, the Word of God, who was Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews says: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son...through whom God also created the worlds…” He goes on to describe God’s Son, Jesus, as the icon of God, the mirror-image, pointing to and reflecting “God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very 
being…”, a being and existence which you and I share by God’s grace. The passage points back to the prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, who describes the Coming One as the bearer of Good News, as one who comforts God’s people, as one before whom “all the nations”, i.e., all the powers that be in the world: political, governmental, economic, academic, etc., fall silent in awe, respect, and submission.
The writer also looks forward to the Gospel passage, referring to “a Son” about whom God has spoken to us. John the Evangelist, in that magnificent Prologue to his Gospel account of Jesus‘ life, identifies this Son as “the Word...the Word [who] was with God...the Word [who] was God.” John confirms the description of Jesus, God’s Son, given by the writer of Hebrews: “[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him...What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…” Scripture speaks of deep darkness and chaos, both at the beginning of creation in Genesis, and in the world into which Jesus came, the son of poor Jewish working class people. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us [literally, pitched his tent among us]. You could almost say, in today’s terms, it was an “Occupy World” event!
John also refers in the Prologue to Jesus‘ cousin, John the Baptizer, also called The Forerunner, who introduced his cousin to the people among whom Jesus lived and preached. John the Evangelist tells us that the reaction to “the Word”, the “True Light”, was under-whelming, to say the least! “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him,; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” ...Except for a few people whom Jesus empowered, including us, right down to the present, to become “children [family members] of God.
You and I continue to be followers of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, because someone took the time to share him and his saving message with us. We continue to struggle in making sense of “the Word” in our own hearts and in our society. We try our best to learn how to share that Word with those whom we love and respect, and with others in whom we recognize an openness to and a hunger for Jesus‘ saving Word.
So, where’s the Christmas Baby? 
The Baby is the One who grew up in a simple Jewish home, the One who ever more deeply, as he grew to be a man, felt the increasing need to reach out to anyone who would listen and speak to them “the Word”, God’s message of Good News, by his life.
The late Fr. Karl Rahner, one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, writes in his book, The Eternal Year, a most stunning description of what Christmas implies for us as we try follow Jesus. He says: God has come. He is here in the world. And therefore everything is different from what we imagine it to be. Time is transformed from its eternal flow into an event that with silent, clear resoluteness leads to a definitely determined goal wherein we and the world shall stand before the unveiled face of God. When we say, ‘It is Christmas,‘ we mean that God has spoken into the world his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word in the incarnate Word, a word that can no longer be revoked because it is God’s definitive deed, because it is God himself in the world.
And this word means: I love you, you, the world and humankind. This is a wholly unexpected word, a quite unlikely word. For how can this word be spoken when both humankind and the world are recognized as dreadful, empty abysses? But God knows them better than we. And yet he has spoken this word by being himself born as a creature. The very existence of this incarnate Word of love demands that it shall provide, eye to eye and heart to heart, an almost unbelievable fellowship...between the eternal God and us...
And now there is stillness in the world only for a little while. The busyness that is proudly called universal history, or one’s own life, is only the stratagem of an eternal love that wills to enable us to give a free answer to its final word...In the trembling of my heart that quivers because of God’s love, I should tell God, who as a human person stands beside me in silent expectation, ‘I‘ -- no, rather say nothing to him, but silently give yourself to the love of God that is there because the Son is born.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

O Virgin of Virgins

Though there were originally seven O Antiphons, this final one is not even found in many of the lists of O Antiphons. According to Benedict D. O’Cinnsealaigh: “[It] appears in both the Gallican (France) and Saerum (England) liturgies. Although it is difficult to establish just when this antiphon was first introduced, it was certainly known in the Middle Ages.” The following text and English translation is from John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore, eds., Hymnal Noted - Parts I and II, London: Novello, 1856, p. 209:

O Virgo Virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
quia nec primam similem visa es,
nec habere sequentem.
Filiæ Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was there any like thee,
nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing that ye behold is a divine mystery.

Below is a prose translation from Cynewulf, The Christ of Cynewulf, trans. Charles Huntington Whitman (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1900):

O thou joy of women in heavenly glory, fairest of all maidens throughout the regions of earth, so far as ocean-dwellers have ever learned, reveal to us the mystery that came to thee from the skies, how thou didst ever conceive so that a child might be born, and yet hadst not at all carnal intercourse after the manner of men! Of a truth we have never heard that in days of old there came to pass such a thing as thou didst receive by special grace, nor may we look for such an event in time to come. Truly a noble faith dwelt in thee, for thou didst bear within thy womb the Lord of glory, and yet thy splendid virginity was not defiled. All the children of men, as they sow in tears, even thus they reap—they bring forth unto death. Then spake the blessed maiden, the holy Mary, ever full of triumph: 'Why marvel ye thus, why grieve ye and sorrowfully lament, ye sons and daughters of Salem? Ye ask in curiosity how I preserved my virginity, my chastity, and yet became the mother of God's illustrious Son? Verily the secret is not known unto men, but Christ declared that in David's beloved daughter all the guilt of Eve is blotted out, the curse removed, and the weaker sex exalted. Hope hath arisen that a blessing amid the joy of heavenly angels, with the Father of righteousness, may now abide for both men and women evermore through all eternity.

Friday, December 23, 2011

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver,
the Expected of nations and their Savior:
Come, and save us, O Lord our God!

Emmanuel or Imanu'el (Hebrew עִמָּנוּאֵל "God [is] with us" consists of two Hebrew words: אֵל (’El, meaning 'God') and עִמָּנוּ (ʻImmānū, meaning 'with us').

The Morning Office for this day prays at sunrise: "Behold, all things spoken by the angel of the Virgin Mary are now fulfilled." The Church's liturgy eagerly anticipates the celebration of the Holy One's coming, and concludes by addressing its plea to the Messiah in person: Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus the Christ is one of us: true God and true man. He identifies with all that a human being is: all joys, pleasures and human happiness, as well as all weaknesses, suffering, pain, doubt, insecurity, depression. Even all these centuries later, this reality is still very hard for most Christians to swallow. Somehow there lingers the slight doubt in many of our minds that Jesus is really like us. We nurture that doubt to our own detriment, allowing a distorted image of God with us to distort our vision. 

The Holy One is God who reigns in our hearts, in the world, in nature, in the events of history ("our King"). He is the One who sets the guidelines for wise and holy living together ("our Lawgiver"). He is the One for whom the human heart, from the beginning until now, longs and desires. He is Yehoshua, Jesus, the One who saves.  The main verse of the chant "O come, O come, Emmanuel" is so descriptive in its plaintive reaching out for God to be with us always as we stand amidst the limitations, indadequacy, and pain of human life as we know it. "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come, O Israel!" 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

O King of the Nations

"O come, Desire of Nations, come, bind
Into one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace."

Another version puts it this way:

"O King of the Nations and the Desired of all, you are the cornerstone which binds two into one: Come, and save poor humankind whom you fashioned out of clay."

Jeremiah (10:7) refers to "O King of the nations". Isaiah (28:16) also refers to the coming Messiah as a "cornerstone", as does Matthew (21:42). In this sense Jesus the Messiah is like a cornerstone, uniting separate entities, peoples, nations. He is the shalom-maker par excellence: the King of Peace who integrates groups of people and brings wholeness and integration within each person. With him there are no boundary lines, setting any group or person off from another. In the words of St. Paul: "There is no Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:29)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Rising Dawn, Dayspring of the Radiant Light

An old Benedictus antiphon from the Office for Wednesday in the fourth week of Advent says: "Do not be afraid! Five more days and the Lord will come to you!" Longing...excitement...anticipation! Sound familiar? Perhaps a little like your children as they await Christmas, or those of someone you know? I read similar thoughts today on Facebook from an adult in my own extended family! It seems that the Church, too, can hardly wait for the "Radiant Light" to shine upon us:

O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal
and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those
who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

The approaching Holy One is like the sun, and the Church uses three wonderful metaphors: 
+ Christ is the Rising Dawn: Isaiah (9:2) proclaims that "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...", and in 60:3 notes that "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." Luke shows Zechariah, John the Baptizer's father, proclaiming "And you, child,....will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people...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." Christ, the Rising Sun, dispels spiritual darkness and death and disperses light and life. "I am the light of the world", Jesus later proclaimed. We associate the sun and light with warmth, joy, and health. By contrast, we have all known our own overshadowing darknesses: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, aloneness, etc. 
+ Christ is the Radiant Light: Jesus the Christ is also the Light eternal, of one substance as the eternal Father. In the Nicene Creed we speak of Jesus as "...the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God..."
+ Christ is the Sun of Justice: The prophet Malachi proclaims (4:2) "...for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings..." Christ is the source of holiness, grace and blessing. What the sun does for nature, Christ does for us who are called into the reign of God. Along with the darknesses and shadows mentioned above, we can also include people who have never heard the message of the Good News of God in Christ, strange as that may seem in today's world of ultra-technology; unbelievers, whether by reasoned choice, or because of faulty and distorted theological education; those who, perhaps, once believed, but who've been so abused and hurt by others or by life's circumstances that they no longer find it possible to set their hearts on the living Christ. If those who cherish the undeserved gift of faith describe the Christ they know with terms like "justice" and "righteousness", then surely they believe in their hearts that Jesus the Holy One will make it "right" for those people in God's time and manner.  

The Apostle Who Saw & Believed

The feast of St. Thomas, Apostle sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of this season of watching and waiting. We're all used to hearing about Thomas on "Low Sunday", the Sunday after Easter. But notice Jesus' question to Thomas in today's Gospel (John 20:24-29): "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Quite a fitting question for all of us to ponder during the waning days of Advent, in which we've heard a lot about glad tidings of things to come, but without mention of anything tangible to see. The Christmas mystery suggests the need for a mature, living faith. How is that effected in us? There are no easy answers. When finally, in four days, we kneel before the One born in Bethlehem the Church will say, in effect, "Here is The One you've been waiting for, the one designated by all the titles we've used in the O Antiphons. Here is the Eternal One, clothed in the human nature which you share."

We celebrate Thomas' feast today on the anniversary of his relics being translated in the 3rd century to Edessa. in northern Mesopotamia. He is said to have missionized India and to have died in Madras, and buried originally in Mailapur. There is obviously little known about his life, other than the few references in the Christian Scriptures. St. Gregory the Great, in one of the Office lessons, attests to Thomas' significance: "Thomas' unbelief has benefited our faith more than the belief of the other disciples; it is because he attained faith through physical touch that we are confirmed in the faith...Indeed, the Lord permitted the apostle to doubt after the resurrection; but he did not abandon him in doubt. By his doubt and by his touching the sacred wounds the apostle became a witness to the truth of the resurrection...Now if Thomas saw and touched the Savior, why did Jesus say: 'Because you have seen me, Thomas, you have believed'? Because he saw something other than what he believed. For no mortal man can see divinity. Thomas saw the Man Christ and acknowledged his divinity with the words: 'My Lord and my God!' Faith, therefore, followed upon seeing."

According to the account given in the Church's Martyrology, Thomas was martyred in India at the king's command. Today he's considered the patron saint of India.

The example of St. Thomas might help us to reflect on the weakness we experience sometimes in approaching faith in our own lives. Is it possible that God uses our "little faith" for greater purposes which we may never understand? Just realizing our inadequacy in this regard is of value in growing in faith. Perhaps all we can do is to continually proclaim the simple acknowlegement of setting our hearts on Jesus the Christ: "My Lord and my God!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Key of David

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah had prophesied: "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." (Isaiah 22:22) "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 onwards and for evermore." (9:7) "...To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house." (42:7) The theme is also repeated in Revelation 3:7.

"Handing over the keys" is symbolic of the conferral of supreme authority. Though the relevant passages in the Hebrew Scriptures aren't messianic per se, but rather are directed towards a faithful civil ruler who has God's support, St. John borrows the passage from Isaiah 22 and applies it to Jesus. Being in the line of David, "son of David", Christ is the heir and possessor of David's keys, i.e., his kingdom or reign. Jesus the Christ is the chief steward of all the blessings of salvation, and, through the Apostles, entrusts this to the Church, which becomes the vehicle of Christ's grace and forgiveness of sin. The Christ holds the means of releasing us from the darkness and imprisonment of our selfishness and lack of love. In loosing our bonds, we are freed to grow in the love Jesus modeled and share with all the people in his life. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Root of Jesse

The Root or Tree of Jesse depicts the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, father of King David. Originally, the family tree was a schematic representation of a genealogy. The theme is taken from Isaiah 11:1-9 and Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38, which describes metaphorically the descent of the Messiah, whom Christians believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. The subject is often seen in Christian art, particularly in that of the Medieval period, the earliest example dating from the 11th century.

The passage in Isaiah, 11:1 reads: "A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots..." The Latin Vulgate Bible used in the Middle Ages says: "et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet " or ".. a rod shall come forth out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up...". Flos is Latin for flower. Virga is a green twig, rod or broom, as well as a convenient near-pun with Virgo or Virgin, which undoubtedly influenced the development of the image. Thus Jesus is the Virga Jesse, the shoot of Jesse.

In the New Testament the lineage of Jesus is traced by two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Luke describes the generations of Christ, beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his earthly father Joseph all the way to Adam. Luke notes: "[Jesus] was the son (as was thought) of Joseph...Matthew's Gospel opens with the words: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." This is Matthew's way of making clear Jesus' whole lineage: He is of God's chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the "root of Jesse" by his descent from Jesse's son, King David.

Isaiah's prophecy arises from his own realization that Judah and David's kingdom would be destroyed. Yet, there would remain a holy root. From the stump of Jesse, David's father, a shoot would spring forth growing into a sort of banner for all nations. All kings and nations would fall silent and adoring before the Messiah. In fact, David's royal line was dethroned with the Exile and remained forgotten for a long time, Jesse's stump. With Jesus a new branch buds out of the old root and once again David's throne is occupied: "The angel said to [Mary]: '...the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'" (Luke 1:30; 32-33)

Today's "O" Antiphon notes two aspects of the Messiah's work: 1) his origins will be humble and unimpressive; 2) but his kingdom will encompass the whole earth, drawing everyone into it and placing those of high station and low under his reign. The antiphon pleads: "Come, save us, and do not delay!" How true today the Scriptures still ring: "Why are the nations in an uproar; why do the peoples mutter empty threats? Why do the mighty of the earth rise up in revolt against God and against God's Anointed?..." Millions are unable to recognize the ensign which is  Christ as the true Messiah: politicians, dictators, the powerful, the rich. Even we ourselves aren't exempt from frequently failing to recognize the reign of God in Christ in the depths of our own hearts and lives. "Come, O Root of Jesse! You stand for an ensign for humankind. Before you kings shall keep silent, and to you all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay!"

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai - O Lord of Might

In the Masoretic Text the name YHWH is vowel-pointed as יְהֹוָה. Traditionally in Judaism, the Name is not pronounced but read as Adonai, during prayer, and referred to as HaShem, the Name,  at all other times. This is done out of hesitation to pronounce the name in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, due to its holiness. This tradition has been cited by most scholars as evidence that the Masoretes vowel-pointed YHWH as they did, to indicate to readers that they are to pronounce Adonai in its place. While the vowel points of אֲדֹנָי (Aḏōnáy) and יְהֹוָה (Yəhōwāh) are very similar, they are not identical. 

Adon = steward, administrator, master, or Lord. The addition of ai to adon intensifies and  elevates its meaning so that it has the flavor of the ultimate Lord, the Supreme Lord, or Lord of all. In other words, it emphasizes the sovereignty and Lordship of God. That implies, therefore, that we are in relationship to God as servants. Our service is a complete surrender to God who will never ask us to do the impossible, but only what we can accomplish. To God who is Love and who loves us, we are the beloved whom he prepares and equips to serve God and others. 

O come, O come, thou Lord of Might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times did give the Law,
In cloud, in majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee
O Israel!

"Here Am I, the Lord's Servant"

"...Desire and reformation of life are human factors: God's advent through grace is intrinsically divine. Here Mary is the sublime model. She desired the kingdom of God and based her life on the words: 'I am the handmaid of the Lord'...

Her example must be our perpetual goal on earth. We must ever be ready and willing to receive the kingdom of God within ourselves as opportunities present themselves. Baptism was our first Christmas, and every Eucharistic Sacrifice is Christmas repeated. The feasts of the Church's liturgical year are days of grace, days of the kingdom of God. Maintain a calm, reverent, and recollected attitude so as not to disturb God's holy stirrings within you.

Thus let us approach Christmas spiritually."

(Fr. Pius Parsch, The Church's Year of Grace, Vol. 1)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Wisdom - Knowing How To Live In Wholeness & Holiness

O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, 
and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things
mightily and sweetly.

Come, and teach us the way of prudence!

Wisdom is one of God's key characteristics, as attested to in the sapiential or Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. God expresses wisdom in the fact of creating "all things so that they might exist..." (Wisdom 1:14) God's Wisdom is often personified. She is the teacher, "the fashioner of all things, [who] taught me." (Wisdom 7:22). Proceeding from God, begotten by God, the breath of God's power, the effusion of God's glory, Wisdom is the beloved daughter present with God and assisting at creation. Wisdom is described, among many terms, as irresistible, steadfast, free from anxiety, penetrating through all spirits, altogether subtle, more mobile than any motion, a breath of the power of God, a reflection of eternal light, an image of God's goodness

But Wisdom is also represented as a human attribute, undergirding all virtue. It doesn't so much have to do with knowledge or human prudence. Wisdom is knowing how to live fully, in harmony with God, with one's sisters and brothers, and with one's self. Such wholeness and integration is true holiness.

Today's antiphon honors, in the words of Fr. Pius Parsch, "the New Testament Creator of the invisible spiritual world rather than the Maker of the visible, material universe about us. Creation, with its glorious order, power and beauty, is but a faint type of the new creation established by Christ. In His Church and in the soul 'He reaches from beginning to end'; He is and remains in this universe till the end of time. How well 'He orders all things mightily and sweetly'!" (The Church's Year of Grace, Vol. 1)

All this is part of our yearning cry: "O Wisdom...Come, teach us the way of prudence!" 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The "O" Antiphons: December 17-23

The "O" Antiphons are antiphons used to introduce the Magnificat canticle at Vespers on the last seven days of Advent.
Each antiphon is a name of Christ, one of his attributes mentioned in Scripture:

December 17:   O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18:   O Adonai (O Lord)
December 19:   O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20:  O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21:   O Oriens (O Dayspring)
December 22:  O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
December 23:  O Emmanuel (O God is with Us)

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the "O" Antiphons are sung or recited at Vespers from December 17 through December 23.
They have been traditionally used in the Church of England at Evening Prayer during this period, though not printed in the Book of Common Prayer. More recently they have found a place in primary liturgical documents throughout the Anglican Communion, including The Episcopal Church. The "O" Antiphons also occur in many Lutheran churches. In the Book of Common Worship published by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the antiphons can be read as a praise litany at Morning or Evening Prayer.

The hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, or Veni Emmanuel, is a lyrical paraphrase of these antiphons. The first letters of the titles taken backwards form a Latin acrostic: "Ero cras" which translates to "Tomorrow, I will come", mirroring the theme of the antiphons.

The exact origin of the "O" Antiphons is unknown. Boethius (480–524/5) made some reference to them, thus suggesting their presence in his time. At the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Benedict at Fleury, now Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, these antiphons were recited by the abbot and the other monks in descending rank, after which a gift was given to each member of the community. By the 8th century they were used in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. Usage of the antiphons was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases "Keep your 'O'" and "The Great O Antiphons" were common parlance. One may conclude from this that the "O" Antiphons have probably been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church.

The Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons purposefully. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one — Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia—the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, "Tomorrow, I will come." This was interpreted as a message to Christians from Jesus, whose coming they prepare for in Advent and whom they have addressed in these seven Messianic titles: "Tomorrow, I will come." Thus the "O" Antiphons not only bring an intensity to Christians' Advent preparation, but are a fitting and joyful conclusion to the season of Advent.