Another great Advent hymn to discuss is “Wake, O Wake with Tidings Thrilling.” Its original German title is “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” which is more literally translated “Awake, a voice calls to us.” The hymn was written in 1599 by Philipp Nicolai, and concerns the Parable of the Ten Virgins. It is beautifully creative, painting a picture of joyful anticipation, as the groom finally arrives, and the joyful cry goes out to the bridesmaids to raise their torches high. The bride, of course, is Mother Church, the New Jerusalem, who joyfully looks for Christ, her groom, as He descends from Heaven in the glory of His Second Coming. Thus, the hymn also points to the following passage from the Book of Revelation:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” … I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear” (Rev 21:2-3; 19:7-8).
The hymn thus beautifully portrays the longing of the Church, the Bride. She looks and longs until she hears these words from Him:Surge amica mea, speciosa mea et veni! (Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!) (Song of Songs 2:10). Yes, her longing cannot be quenched until He comes again in all His radiant beauty and majesty. Until then, she looks, longs, and waits, until the number of her elect children is complete and she, in her fullness, will go to be with her spouse forever in the beatific glory.
Enjoy one of the great Advent hymns, “Wake, O Wake with Tidings Thrilling!” This particular translation (from the German) is wonderful; it is both biblical and artistic:
Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling; The Watchmen all the air are filling; Arise, Jerusalem, Arise! Midnight strikes, no more delaying; “The hour has come,” we hear them saying; Where are ye all ye virgins wise?
The bridegroom comes in sight Raise high, your torches bright! Alleluia! The wedding song swells loud and strong; Go forth and join the festal throng.
Zion hears the watchman shouting; Her heart leaps up with joy undoubting; She stands and waits with eager eyes! She her love from heaven descending; Adorned with truth and grace unending; Her light burns clear her star doth rise!
Now come our precious crown; Lord Jesus, God’s own Son; Hosanna! Let us prepare to follow there Where in thy supper we may share.
Yes, there is a great wedding feast in every liturgy, and its culmination looks to the glorious Second Coming of Jesus. This Christmas, look to your wedding garment, which the Lord gave you at baptism to bring unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. The Bridegroom comes! Let us go out to meet Christ the Lord (cf Matt 25:6).
Here is a performance of this great wedding song of Advent by the choir of Trinity College in Cambridge.
Continuing our examination of less-well-known Advent hymns, today we will look at the marvelous “Veni Redemptor Gentium” (“Come Redeemer of the Nations”), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Sadly, it is not often sung in Catholic parishes today, and most people I’ve asked have never even heard of it.
One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they delve into its more hidden mysteries and give a sweeping theological vision.
Here we are in Advent and Jesus is coming. Get ready! Well, yes, but He’s not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand. How can all of that be squeezed into a single Advent hymn? You’ll see below.
Full vision – For now, ponder the theological point that hymns like this make: no act of God can be reduced merely to the act in itself. Everything God does is part of His sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us. Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way, but it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.
Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time” but no passion or death.
Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of His incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.
With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, so seldom sung in our Catholic parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (“Puer Natus”). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.
Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity, His equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.
Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth, Come manifest thy virgin birth: All lands admire, all times applaud: Such is the birth that fits our God.
Forth from his chamber goeth he, That royal home of purity, A giant in twofold substance one, Rejoicing now his course to run.
The Virgin’s womb that glory gained, Its virgin honor is still unstained. The banners there of virtue glow; God in his temple dwells below.
From God the Father he proceeds, To God the Father back he speeds; Runs out his course to death and hell, Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.
O Equal to thy Father, thou! Gird on thy fleshly mantle now; The weakness of our mortal state With deathless might invigorate.
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.
All laud, eternal Son, to thee Whose advent sets thy people free, Whom with the Father we adore, And Holy Ghost, for evermore.
This video below gives you an idea of what the melody for “Veni Redemptor Gentium” sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect.
One of the great cries of Advent is for God to rend the heavens and come down (Is 64:1), for Him to stir up His mighty power and come to save us (Ps 80:2). But what is it that we really seek? Is it armies with thunder and lightning? Is it vindication and peace on our terms? In a way, it is a dangerous cry if we mean it that way, for who among us can say that no wrath should come to us but only to those other people who deserve it? If God should come in thunderous judgement, are we really so sure we could endure and be numbered among the just?
It is clear that we need the Lord to save us, but do we see that salvation seen only in earthly terms such that we are saved from our enemies but remain largely unharmed?
In the final essay of volume 11 of his collected works, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) ponders a similar Advent theme. I’d like to present his reflections and add a few of my own. In a sermon from December 2003, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger taught,
Stir up your might, O Lord, and come! This was the cry of Israel in exile … this was the cry of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee [in the storm] “Wake up O Lord and help us!” … And throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters … Stir up your might and come!
… What really is this might of God that seems to be asleep and must be wakened? St. Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians when he says that Christ the Crucified One, who is foolishness and weakness to men, is the wisdom and power of God.
Therefore, when we ask for this real power of God, we are not asking for more money for the Church, for more buildings, for more structures, for more political influence. We are praying for this special, entirely different power of God. We are praying with the awareness that he comes in a powerful way that seems to the world to be weakness and foolishness (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11: pp. 595-596).
Yes, here is the paradox of God’s power: He defeats Satan’s pride by the humility of His Son; disobedience and the refusal to be under any authority are defeated by the obedience and submission of Jesus.
Once stirred, God’s power will not always—or even often—manifest itself in thunder and lightning or in armies that conquer and destroy. Rather, His “strong and outstretched arm” is often found nailed and bloody on the cross. Yet here, and in this way, He defeats Satan. How? Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that.
Thus, the Lord defeats Satan not by the becoming a bigger, fiercer, more vengeful version of him, but by canceling his evil stance with its opposite. The Lord refuses to meet Satan’s terms, to become anything like him or in any way enter his world. In this way, the Lord conquers pride with humility and hate with love. I am mindful of some of the words from an old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
The hymn concludes with these words:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Cardinal Ratzinger continues his essay in this way:
He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that apparently has nothing more to say, yet then proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God.
This paradox should challenge us mightily because it means that God’s help will often not be on our terms. We would like to have every foe vanquished and every sorrow of our life removed. No cross at all; just stir up your power Lord and take it all away. But that is not usually how God’s power stirs in this “paradise lost,” which we chose by our own ratification of Adam and Eve’s sinful choice. We preferred a tree and its fruit to God, and He does not cancel our choice. Instead, He plants the tree of the cross and saves us by the very suffering and death we chose in the ancient Garden of Eden.
Here is God’s true power at work in this sin-soaked and rebellious world: the power of the cross. If you didn’t know what you were asking for when praying, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us,” you do now. We might prefer that God save us on our terms, by the mere vanquishing of our foes and the removal of our suffering, but (as St. Paul teaches) power is made perfect in weakness; it is when we are weak that we are strong, for then the power of God rests on us (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10).
Cardinal Ratzinger then sets forth the challenge of this prayer for us:
[Hence our true declaration is] “Lord wake us up from our drowsiness in which we are incapable of perceiving you, in which we conceal and impede the coming of your holy power.
… Christianity is not a moral system in which we may merely roll up our sleeves and change the world. We see in the movements that have promised us a better world how badly that turns out!
… But [on the other hand] Christians are not merely spectators … rather [the Lord] involves us; he desires to be efficacious in and through us … And so in this cry we pray to him for ourselves and to allow our own hearts to be touched: Your power is in us, rouse it and help us not to be an obstacle to it, but, rather, its witnesses [to its] vital strength.
That may well mean suffering, martyrdom, and loss. It may not—and usually does not—mean that God will simply vanquish our foes and remove all our suffering. In this world the saving remedy is the cross; not just for others but for us, too. On Good Friday, Christ looked like a “loser.” Satan and the world danced. But on Sunday, the Lord got up. Friday was first, Saturday lingered, and then came Sunday. As for Christ, so also for us: always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that also the life of Jesus may be manifested in us (2 Cor 4:10). The victory will come but it comes through the paradoxical power of the cross.
Does this Advent reflection sound too much like Lent for you? Why do you think we are wearing purple during Advent?
Now pray with me (but be sure to understand what you are asking): Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us!
Here is the common Psalm for Advent: Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we are close to the unfolding of the great mystery of the Word made flesh. It is easy for us to look right past it, but we do well to pause and ponder what is taught to us today about the salvation that is to unfold. One significant way we can do this is by reflecting on the first reading, which is from the prophet Micah. In four short verses we are presented with a kind of summary of our salvation, a snapshot of what ails us and how God heals us.
Let’s see what the Lord and the Church have to teach us.
I. Our Humility – The text begins, And you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.
Of all the towns and villages in the land of Judah, one of the lowliest was Bethlehem. Though not far from the great city of Jerusalem—a matter of a few miles—it was little more than a rundown, frontier village with little to recommend itself. It was a place by which one passed quickly on the way to nearby Jerusalem.
Even today, despite all that happened there, Bethlehem remains a troubled and rundown little city, impoverished and crowded. Its steep, hilly streets feature little that is pleasant to the eyes. A great sorrow hangs over it. It is hemmed in by guard towers and walls covered with razor wire. These are signs of a great standoff between Israel and the Palestinians. Largely isolated economically, the city suffers from widespread poverty and unemployment.
The ancient Church of the Nativity at the top of the hill looks every bit of its 1500 years in age. It is dingy, covered in soot, and largely in a state of poor repair, due to a standoff among the Orthodox factions that oversee the building. Thankfully, recent negotiations have yielded a renovation of some of the nave. The tension is palpable as one enters the church; nervous tour guides engage in delicate negotiations to ensure a quick visit to the cave of the Nativity beneath the altar.
Bethlehem remains lowly, troubled, and humble, yet it was here that our Savior chose to be born. He did not choose nearby Jerusalem, distant Rome, or any great imperial city. Not in a palace was He is born but in a cave. Even within this humble and lowly city, one must get mighty low to find the place where Christ was born. One descends steep, narrow steps into a cave, and once inside one must stoop lower still, even kneeling on the floor, to touch the place where Christ was born.
A lowly place in a lowly village—this is where Christ was born. See how the Lord esteems humility? God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. Pride is our greatest enemy; it is at the root of every sin we commit. That is why the Lord teaches us that humility is one of our greatest gifts.
The story also reminds us of something that took place in Bethlehem 1000 years before. The prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a new king to replace Saul. Having been sent to lowly Bethlehem, Samuel surveyed the sons of Jesse. The seven strong young men impressed Samuel, but none of them was the king he was sent to anoint. There was one other son, a boy so young and insignificant that Jesse had not even thought to include him. It was little David, who was out in the field tending the sheep. Yes, the lowliest one, he was the one whom God chose. Humility won the day (cf 1 Sam 16).
So it is that Bethlehem shows forth the humility, the lowliness that alone opens the door to God. Bethlehem is a name that means “house of bread,” not “house of caviar,” not “house of fine wine.” Humility ushers in our God.
II. Our Hardship – The text goes on to speak of our condition prior to the coming of Jesus: Therefore, the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne.
Our condition without Christ is grave. We are given up, given over to sin and to our own fruitless and self-destructive tendencies. Thus, we learn of the gravity of our condition: that we cannot save ourselves. The prophet Isaiah had cried out, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! … All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins (Is 64:1,6-7).
Yes, our condition apart from Christ is hard and quite hopeless. In the age of the law and the prophets, we learned the hard way that no matter how hard we try we cannot save ourselves. Our wounds are too deep, our pride too great, our hearts too dull, and our minds too dark. We are lost without God. How often have deluded men sought to create utopia only to discover ruins? We have only to consider the utopian notions of the last bloody century.
Yes, the age of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament shouts to us that we cannot save ourselves. We must rely on God; we must turn to Him. We don’t just need an angel—we need a savior. Until she who was to give birth has borne the son, the only way to describe the human family is just the way this text from Micah does: we had been given up, given over to our own sins so as to discover humility and our need for a savior.
Isaiah wrote, All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6). St. Paul would later write of the time before Christ, we were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1), given over to our transgressions and iniquity.
So, here is our hardship. We are wandering, lost, and in need of a savior.
III. Our Head – The text goes on to speak of our Savior, our shepherd, our ruler, and our head: Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God.
Thus, we see that our Savior will be both God and man. He is God, for His origin is from of old, from ancient times (cf also Hebrews 7:3). He also saves us by the strength of the Lord. Yet He is also one of us, for the text speaks of Him as acting in the name of the Lord, His God.
He must be God in order to have the power to save us, and yet He must also be one of us in order to speak and act on our behalf. As God, He cannot obey God, for there is only one divine will. As man, having a human will, He is able to obey the Father. Thus, it makes sense that our Savior must be both God and man.
It is said that He will shepherd His flock. Shepherds feed, lead, and protect their flocks. All this the Lord does for us. It is a trait of sheep to be wayward; sheep tend to stray. They need the watchful care of a shepherd. Similarly, even after saving us from our sins, the Lord must continue to feed us, lead us, and protect us. Otherwise, having been snatched from the wolf, we might run into a bear. Or, having been saved from the edge of a cliff, we might wander into a thicket.
Christ, our shepherd and head, must go before us, showing us and opening the way. He must also walk behind us to guard us and to observe our every action. He must also walk beside us to keep our paths straight. We need our Savior, not just on Good Friday, but every hour of every day.
IV. Our Healing – The text goes on to say, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.
Thus, we see that Jesus’ essential task in healing us is not simply a personal healing for me alone or for you alone. It is also healing that removes the divisions within and among us. One of the chief sources of our suffering in this world is division. Nation is divided against nation; races and ethnic groups are in competition; there is conflict and crushing hatred.
At the time of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles (largely Romans and Greeks) were in major conflict. The Jews of Jesus’ time were taught to love their neighbor and their fellow Jews, but to hate their enemy. Jesus taught that we must love and forgive our enemies and began the process of establishing a universal Church, a Catholic Church. He gave the apostles standing orders to preach the gospel to every nation and to unite everyone under the common title of disciple, of Christian. The dignity of baptism and of being a child of God was to be offered to all. As this text of Micah prophesies, the Lord’s salvation and greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth.
The text goes on to say, He shall be our peace. Note that this is not a “can we all just get along” sort of peace. It means that He shall be our peace. That is to say, the Lord Jesus Christ and the truth He proclaims are to be the source of our unity. In sending the apostles forth to proclaim the Gospel to every nation, Jesus said that they should teach the people to observe everything that He commanded and should draw them into the life of the Church through baptism (cf Matt 28:19). He is our peace. Jesus and His teachings are what are meant to unite us. Every other form of peace is not a true or lasting peace.
Thus, Jesus initiated a process that was not meant to conquer the world politically. Rather, it was a process whereby His truth and grace would be proclaimed and those who accepted these gifts would be able to come to greater and more lasting peace.
This peace must begin in the heart and mind of every individual believer who, by the grace of Jesus Christ, experiences an inner healing of the many conflicts and destructive drives caused by sin. Then, by drawing others to that same healing through evangelization to a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, this peace is meant to spread throughout the world. This will put an end to division, bring together the children of God, and show forth God’s greatness, truth, and salvation to the ends of the earth.
He is our peace. Jesus is our healing.
This Sunday’s first reading, coming just before the Christmas reality, presents us with a summary of our salvation. It stresses our need for humility, describes our hardship, announces our Head (a Shepherd), and sets forth the basis for our healing. In a word, the basis for our healing is the Word made flesh, Jesus.
This song says,
We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live.
Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can.
One of the less-well-known Advent hymns is “Rorate Caeli Desuper” (Heavens, drop dew from above). It is a plaintive hymn that recalls our desperate need for a savior and concludes with consolations from God, who has heard our cries and hastens to save us.
The refrain, which comes from Isaiah 45:8, is shown below in both Latin and English:
Roráte caéli désuper, (Heavens, drop dew from above) et núbes plúant jústum. (and let the clouds rain forth justice).
This is an image for the gentle work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works subtly like the dewfall and more boldly like rainfall to bring forth Him who is our justice. For indeed, dew and rain are symbols of life, vigor, and/or providence. Water is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Archangel St. Gabriel told Mary, The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the most High shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Like a gentle dewfall, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and quietly she conceives; He who is our justice begins to dwell among us.
The rains that come forth from the clouds also are an image of God’s work in the Incarnation. Isaiah 45:8 continues by saying, Let the earth open up that salvation may sprout and righteousness spring up with it; I, the LORD, have created it. As God’s grace comes forth like rain from the clouds, truth shall spring up from the earth (see Psalm 85:11). Indeed, we are of the dust of this earth, and as the Lord tabernacles Himself in flesh in the womb of the Blessed Mother, justice and truth spring up from the earth as well. Both the quiet dewfall and the rain bring forth Him who is our justice and truth.
The need for this saving work of God is set forth in the verses that follow. (The Latin and English can be seen side by side here: Rorate Caeli Disuper.)
Be not angry, O Lord, and no longer remember our iniquity:
Behold, the holy city is made a wilderness,
Sion is deserted, Jerusalem a desolation:
the house of your holiness and your glory,
where our fathers praised thee.
The next verse says that our sins have caused this:
We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we fall as do all the leaves:
and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us: and hast consumed us,
because of our iniquities.
We are fallen like the leaves and the winds carry us away. We cannot see the Lord because we are blinded, consumed, and withered by our sins.
In the next verse, we cry to God to send a savior and shepherd to rescue us:
Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people,
and send forth him whom thou wilt send;
send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth,
from Petra of the desert to the mount of daughter Sion:
that he may take away the yoke of our captivity.
God responds to our cries:
You are my witnesses, saith the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen;
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord,
and beside me there is no Savior:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
Not only do I save you, says the Lord, but you shall then be my witnesses to draw others to me; I alone can save.
Then comes the great consolation and promise:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
your salvation shall suddenly come:
why wilt thou waste away in sadness?
why hath sorrow seized thee?
Fear not, for I will save thee:
For I am the Lord thy God,
the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.
Such a beautiful hymn, with its image of the dewfall and the rain symbolizing the Holy Spirit; with its image of Jesus our Savior as justice and truth springing forth from Mary’s womb and, by extension, from the earth! Such beautiful verses, setting fort our pitiful condition, giving voice to our cries, and ushering in the consolations and promises of our God!
Here is a simple, hauntingly beautiful version of the hymn in Gregorian Chant. (Note that the hymn tune is different from that of the antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.)
The Catholic Church has been singing the “O Antiphons” since about the 8th century. They were first composed as antiphons to accompany the singing of the Magnificat in Vespers of the Divine Office. They were composed for the last week of Advent, December 17th – 23rd.
They are a compact and beautiful theology that draws on biblical themes of the Old Testament. As such, they proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and hopes. They also express current longings rooted in those themes. And although the prophecies are fulfilled, they remain an ever-longing aspect of all human hearts.
In these antiphons, note the repeated use of both the expression “O” and the word “come.”
These antiphons are memorably and poetically reworked in the beautiful and well-known hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which is included at the end of this post.
What follows here is less a scholarly presentation than a devotional reflection. Others have undertaken well the work of exploring the biblical roots and traditions. While I do not wholly ignore that, this is a modest and devotional meditation in joyful preparation for Christmas and in hopes of helping others to find joy and exhortation in these laconic and beautiful teachings. Let’s look at each of the antiphons in turn.
Dec 17: O Wisdom that comes out of the mouth of the Most High, that reaches from one end to another, and orders all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence.
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
The antiphon here is a brief summary of the wisdom tradition of the Bible. This wisdom, which comes forth from the mouth of God, orders all things mightily.
Notice that the antiphon says that wisdom orders all things. This refers to the obvious fact that there is an order in all of creation. Things work together intricately on many levels. The microscopic level of atoms, molecules, and cells is the foundational matter of an amazing interplay of delicately balanced realities that make possible complex systems of higher life and matter.
Our own bodies bespeak amazing organization in the interplay of the endocrine system, the nervous system, the lymphatic system, muscular and structural parts, and amazingly sophisticated organs such as the eyes and ears, not to mention the brain.
All around us are ecosystems that both support and enable life. There is photosynthesis, amazing weather patterns, and further above us, the Van Allen belts magnetically deflecting the harmful rays of the sun while letting in the helpful ones.
Add to this the beautiful balance of our solar system: the earth being just where it needs to be to permit enough warmth but not too much. Nearby, too, there are comet-catchers like Jupiter and Saturn in the asteroid belt keeping most of the asteroids at bay.
All of this magnificent interplay of systems, this balance and design, is what the wisdom tradition extols, and what the antiphon describes as coming forth from the mouth of God to order all things mightily and sweetly.
The book of Sirach, which announces the glory of God’s creation from 42:15 through 43:35, expressively says at its conclusion, Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
St. Paul takes up the wisdom tradition when he says, For God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Rom 1:20).
St. John takes it up when he writes in the prologue, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made, that was made (Jn 1:1-3). And that word, the Logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. For indeed, God spoke all thinking to being through His word (e.g., Let there be light and there was light). And this Logos conveys a logic (logike) on and in all created things.
The hymn of the Letter to the Colossians says regarding Jesus, the Word made Flesh, For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).
This, then, is the great wisdom tradition so beautifully expressed in the antiphon.
Dec 18: O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!
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.
This antiphon speaks of Jesus as Lord and Ruler. We shall ponder him as ruler and king in another antiphon below.
But here, note the description of the Lord particularly in the aspect of fire. The first aspect of fire is explicit, in the burning bush that Moses encountered. The second image is less explicit, speaking of Moses up on the mountain receiving the law. The great theophany on Sinai’s heights was described in a fiery sort of way in Exodus 20:18-20 as being almost like a volcano. There are clouds, fire, lightning, and trumpet blasts as Moses goes up on the mountain. The people below are terrified; they instinctively realize that they cannot even touch the base of the mountain because they are not worthy or holy enough to be in God’s fiery presence.
Scripture speaks of God as a consuming fire (Heb 12:29, Psalm 18), a holy fire, and, most productively for us, as a refining fire (Mal. 3:2). As a refining fire, He shall burn away impurities so that we may one day be able to stand before Him with hands raised up praising Him who has redeemed us with strong hand and outstretched arm.
It is no accident that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues of fire. The Holy Spirit enters us as fire to bring us up to the temperature of glory, burning away sinfulness, refining us as pure gold, enabling us to endure the blazing fire of God’s love.
Dec 19:O Root of Jesse, which stands for a sign over the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
This antiphon stresses the historical roots of the Gospel in and among the Jewish people, whom God chose long ago to be the root, the vine, and eventually the very cradle of His saving love for all the nations.
The root of Jesse here (in accord with Isaiah 11) speaks of the Jewish people, of whom Jesus said and affirmed, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
And yet, as countless prophecies also disclosed, there would come a day when the Gentiles would also be joined to the saving plan of God and receive their Messiah from and through the Jewish people. In Romans 11:17 St. Paul speaks of the Gentiles as being like wild olive shoots grafted onto the olive tree, onto the vine of Israel. In this way all Israel will be saved, believing Jews and Gentiles together, grafted to the one vine, made members of the one Body of Christ. And Christ Himself joined the family of Jesse; He is a member of our own family tree!
This, then, is an antiphon that speaks to family ties and history. The Gospel is not located up in the skies; it is down-to-earth; it is among us by God’s grace. He is from us in His human roots and surely is also for us.
Dec 20: O Key of David, and Scepter of the house of Israel, that opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness.
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.
A key bespeaks access, and the one who holds the keys has the power to give or refuse admittance.
After original sin, we could no longer endure the presence of God; we were mercifully excluded from the garden, now guarded by an angel with the flaming sword (Gen 3:24). We could not, on our own, ever hope to regain access to the Father. There was no way for us, in our sinful state, to tolerate the holiness of God.
Thus the prophet Malachi memorably asked, But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears? Malachi went on to answer that only when God acted as a refining fire could we be pure enough to endure or abide His presence (Mal 3:3ff). And this Jesus did for us on the cross, purifying us with His own blood, with the fire of His love.
Therefore, it is Jesus who holds the key to open so that no one can close, to close so that no one can open (Rev. 3:7). He alone restores us access to His Father. He opens the gates, not of some earthly paradise, but of Heaven itself. And how beautifully this is shown in the rending of the curtain in the sanctuary from top to bottom.
Yes, Jesus holds the keys to the kingdom. He alone can grant access to the heart of His Father.
Both the keys and the mention of His scepter are reminders of His authority. One day we will stand before Him who will judge us. He alone will grant access, opening so that no one can shut. He alone will deny access to those unfit and incapable of the kingdom, closing so that no one can open.
Dec 21: O Morning Star, Brightness of the everlasting light, and Sun of justice, come to give light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The Latin word used here, oriens, literally and most simply means “the East.” More politically and allegorically it can be translated “morning star,” “the dawn,” “Daystar,” “morning light,” “sunrise,” etc.
Christ is the light of the world. And He will come again from the East. Scripture says in numerous places that Christ will appear from the East:
For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man (Mt 24:27–28).
Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God! (Bar 4:36)
Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision, which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision, which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple (Eze 43:1–5).
Sing to God, ye kingdoms of the earth: sing ye to the Lord: Sing to God, who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Behold he will give to his voice the voice of power: give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds! (Psalm 68:32-34)
Until relatively recently, the Church faced to the East to pray. Doing so is a way of turning toward God and looking for Him and to Him. Where the altar could not be situated facing East according to the compass, the crucifix became a kind of liturgical East. Everyone would face the same way to pray, especially during the Eucharistic prayer.
The Latin word oriens is also the root of the English word “orientation.” To be oriented means to be properly directed, to be facing in the correct direction.
To say the least, the modern practice of the priest facing the people to pray the Eucharistic prayer is historically flawed. It amounts to a departure from a centuries-old practice and instinct, going all the way back to Old Testament times. Increasingly in the Church today there is a desire by some to “re-orient” the liturgy, literally and figuratively, so that all face the liturgical East during the Eucharistic prayer. On altars that face the people, Pope Benedict encouraged the placement of the crucifix, and he encouraged the clergy to instruct the people that we are really gathered around the cross more so than facing one another. Our focus is to be on God at this moment not one another.
The antiphon goes on to speak of the Lord Jesus as the light of the world and begs Him to shed light on all of us who are in darkness and in the shadow of death. Indeed, Christ alone is the true light of the world and the lamp of the city of God!
The Lord wants His light to shine in this world! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus indicates that He wants His light to shine through us. In this way, in a subordinate sense, we are to be the light of the world (cf Matt 5:14) as Christ shines through us.
But O, the darkness, when Christians do not allow the light of Christ’s truth, His teachings, and His call to repentance and healing to shine through us! One may wonder how the world has become so dark today. The answer is not far away; look around. This is happened on our watch. Too many Christians have sheepishly hidden their light under a bushel basket.
O come Lord Jesus, O Daystar rising in the East, remove whatever hinders us from allowing your light to shine through us. Remove the fear. Remove the aversions. Cleanse us of our sins, which, like soot on glass, do not allow the light to go through. Come, Jesus, light of the world, shine in this world and through us.
Dec 22: O King of the Gentiles, and desire of them, Cornerstone, that makes of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
This antiphon calls Jesus “King.” Is He our king? Does He call the shots or is there someone else we obey? Do you and I obey Christ? Do we allow His thoughts to replace ours? Are His priorities, thoughts, and teachings ours as well?
Jesus Christ told Pontius Pilate that His kingship was about the fact that He came to bear witness to the truth, and that those who were of the truth would listen to His voice. See the connection between faith, kingship, and obedience to the truth that Christ, as King and teacher, proclaims to us!
The antiphon goes on to refer to Christ as the cornerstone. And while in our experience cornerstones tend to be more ceremonial, the cornerstone of a building is critical; the walls above rest on it. Therefore, a cornerstone has to be true, perfectly cut, reliable, sturdy, and firm. Jesus and His teachings are this for us; He is the cornerstone, the foundation on which we stand. And Peter is His vicar. Christ calls Peter the rock on which He will build His Church. Are you standing on the solid rock of Christ’s teachings or on the shifting sands of this world?
The antiphon also says that Christ is the desire of the nations. All of our desires that we think can be fulfilled by worldly things are really pointing to the Lord, who alone can fill the God-sized hole in our hearts. No one but the Lord can really and ultimately satisfy us. Sadly, though, we always think that just one more drink, just a little more money, just one more thing will fulfill us and make us happy. It will not. Christ really is your desire.
Are you and I in touch with this? Or do we think that just one more drink, just one more thing will do it?
Dec 23: O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, and their Savior, come to save us, O Lord our God!
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster
This last antiphon is a great summation of most of the antiphons that have preceded it. The Lord Jesus is summoned as king, lawgiver, the desire of the nations, Savior—indeed, God Himself with us. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, you who are God among us; come and save your people.
VENI veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel, qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.
R: Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel, nascetur pro te Israel!
O COME, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that morns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
R: Rejoice! Rejoice! O Israel,
to thee shall come Emmanuel!
Veni, O Sapientia, quae hic disponis omnia, veni, viam prudentiae ut doceas et gloriae. R.
O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. R.
Veni, veni, Adonai, qui populo in Sinai legem dedisti vertice in maiestate gloriae. R.
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, and majesty, and awe. R.
Veni, O Iesse virgula, ex hostis tuos ungula, de spectu tuos tartari educ et antro barathri. R.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them
that trust Thy mighty power to save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave. R.
Veni, Clavis Davidica, regna reclude caelica, fac iter tutum superum, et claude vias inferum. R.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heav’nly home,
make safe the way that leads on high,
that we no more have cause to sigh. R.
Veni, veni O Oriens, solare nos adveniens, noctis depelle nebulas, dirasque mortis tenebras. R.
O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight. R.
Veni, veni, Rex Gentium, veni, Redemptor omnium, ut salvas tuos famulos peccati sibi conscios. R.
Veni, veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel, qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.
O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace. R.
O Come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that morns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth? This is the cry that goes up from the final pages of the Old Testament (Mal 3:2). The Lord himself gives the answer:
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)
With these words the Old Testament ends.
The New Testament opens in the desert near the banks of the River Jordan, with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, He is the Elijah who was to come (Mt 11:14). In John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure, who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.
All of this leads us to this Sunday’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist summons the faithful to repentance so that they will be ready when the Messiah arrives. Those of us who want to be ready also need to go into the wilderness and listen to John’s message: Prepare the way of the Lord! Although only the Lord can finally get us ready, we must be able to say to Him, “I’m as ready as I can be.”
Let’s look at this Gospel reading in three stages, going into the wilderness with John the Baptist as our teacher:
1. Context – Luke sets forth the context meticulously: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
What’s going on here? Why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an ancient Middle Eastern phone book or a “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Yes, notice the following:
The Prestige– You might say that this is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! There is an emperor (i.e., the federal government), a local governor (i.e., the state government), three tetrarchs (state and local officials), and two religious (and secular) leaders. Anybody who is anybody is in the list, yet it was not to any of them that the Word of God came.
The Person– It was John the Baptist, the simple man in the desert, to whom the Word came. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? Where do you say he lives? He doesn’t live in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Recall these Scripture passages:
But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27-29).
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure (Luke 10:21).
He has lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. To this simple, unlettered man, the Word of God came, and many went out to hear him speak the Word of God in wisdom.
The Place – Where is the Word of God proclaimed? Where is John the Baptist found? Where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the “Ivy League” town of Jerusalem? No indeed; not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert, neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert that the prophet was found.
It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? It is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power; it is found in the desert, where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is here that the Word of God is found and heard.
2. Call – The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.
Here we have a basic biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this, but so did Jesus in His opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)
There must be balance in preaching. Repent and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice have strayed from this kerygmatic balance between “Repent” and “Believe the good news!” Many today only want to hear or proclaim the “good news.” The good news only makes sense, though, if we understand that we are in dire need of a divine physician. Repenting sets the stage for the good news.
As we have discussed in other posts, metanoia means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally, to have one’s thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought), to have one’s mind renewed, to think in a new way. The basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self-satisfaction and self-righteousness and to be convinced of our need for forgiveness and for a savior. Yes, we are sinners in need of a savior. We are bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save ourselves. There is good news, though: the Savior is here, even at the door! We must arise and be ready to answer when He knocks.
Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief than with healing, needs to experience something of the desert. There’s nothing like it to remind us of our frailty and neediness. Today in the Church we often try to make everyone feel comfortable; we don’t want to risk talking about sin or other controversial topics because it might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air-conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert with no creature comforts to be found. There was and is just the call to come to a new mind, to reorder misplaced priorities, to surrender self-righteousness, and to accept that we are frail sinners who need a savior.
With the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense—and it really is good news: the savior is near, even at the door. However, we have to go out into the desert and listen to a humble man, not one of the rich and powerful. We must listen to John, a man clothed in camel hair and subsisting on wild honey and locusts.
He does proclaim good news, but we must be ready for it.
3. Content – What does it mean to repent? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Notice the elements of the content:
Ready– The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season; we’re all getting ready for Christmas, but mostly in a social way (buying presents, going to parties, and decorating the house). Will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things. We prepare for tax day. We make sure to be on time for work. We know how to catch a plane. We know how to get to a movie or a sporting event at the right time. We spend years getting ready for careers. Why don’t we spend more time getting ready for God? The one thing that is most certain is that we will die one day and stand before God. Are you ready? As the text says, Prepare the way of the Lord! This world will pass away, but the things of God remain. Careers and promotions are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for uncertain, worldly things and yet not spend time on spiritual things?
Right– The text says, make straight his paths. The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, of waywardness, of a heart that is not steadfast and straight. Too often we are all over the moral map; we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov 3:6).
Put away from you crooked speech and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil (Prov 4:24-27).
Consider this example. If I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City and see a sign that says, “South to Richmond,” I know that following the sign would be foolish; it would lead me in the wrong direction. We know how to set a course for worldly destinations and how to avoid going the wrong way, but what about our course home to Heaven? We might sing, “I’m on my way to Heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm,” but then we see an exit marked, “Sin City, Next Exit” and sure enough we take it. Why? Many of us are outraged to hear that we can’t just go whichever way we please, do whatever we want, and still end up in Heaven. Then comes all the anger directed at the Church, the Bible, the preacher, and anyone who might remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to go up. You can’t turn left or right and say you’re going straight. Thus, the text says that we should make straight the way of the Lord.
Reverent– The text says, Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The mountain represents pride. Every sin is rooted in pride, because it asserts that our way is better than God’s. We think that we know better than God. We are modern; Scripture is old fashioned. We are with it while the Church is out of touch. This is the mountain of pride and we must let it go. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from Heaven than pride, thinking that we know better than God does.
The valley symbolizes low self-esteem and despair. It may not be obvious, but a lot of sins come from low self-esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think that if they are brought low, we will feel better about our own self. We also give way to peer pressure easily because we can only feel better about our own self if we “fit in” and are approved by others. Sometimes we’ll even sin in order to accomplish that. Some young women will fornicate for the price of a nice meal, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would—all because they fear that they won’t be loved if they don’t. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they think that they must in order to “be a man.” Many young men join gangs—even drop out and commit crimes—all to “belong” and be “cool.” Low self-esteem is an ugly business that leads us to commit many sins. These valleys have to be filled in.
The solution to both pride and low self-esteem is fear of the Lord, reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of much sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord, I don’t need to fear anyone else. When I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys are leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear of the Lord.
Refined– The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks, and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways? What are some of our obstacles and pitfalls?
What are some of the specific things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make me rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful, or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, unspiritual, or unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up? What in me needs softening and smoothing?
Recognizing– The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word used in this passage is ὁράω (horao). While it is translated as “see,” it involves an active receptivity, more in the sense of looking than merely having something overshadow us or cross our visual path. The danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus, we must remain active and receptive. We must look for salvation and redemption; we must seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.
Learning the ways of the faith is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the letters, the meaning of the words, and the grammar, a different language can look or sound like gibberish. For many today, the ways of faith are just that: gibberish. For us who believe, though, because we have been made ready for God, because we make straight his paths, because we reverence God and reject roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption and rejoice in its presence.
One of the goals of Advent (in many ways a penitential season) is to meditate on our need for a savior. In daily Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours, we read lengthy passages from Isaiah and the other prophets, who speak boldly and bluntly about the people’s sin. Some of the passages are even a bit humorous. Here are a few:
Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil (Isaiah 1: 2-6).
Hear this, O House of Jacob, called by the name Israel, sprung from the stock of Judah. You swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel, but without sincerity or justice. …. I know that you are stubborn, that you neck is like an iron sinew and you forehead is bronze (Isaiah 48:1, 4).
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. … Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you (Isaiah 64:6-8,1).
The problem is not just a collective one; each of us is personally sinful and needs a savior. If we are honest we must admit that we can be selfish, egotistical, rude, insensitive, prideful, lustful, greedy, unkind, and ungrateful. We can be dishonest, insincere, shallow, inconsistent, double-minded, and uncommitted. We can be stingy, selfish, petty, spiteful, hateful, wrathful, vengeful, and just plain mean. We struggle with laziness, indifference, worldliness, and lack of discipline. We routinely fail to give witness to Christ and to our faith. We fail to submit our will to God, to give good example, to act justly, to show mercy, and to repent. We fail to obey God, lead a holy life, stand up for justice, speak the truth, call sinners to Christ, and pray for others. Did I mention somewhere that we need a savior?
To a large extent, Advent lays out the bad news so that we appreciate the magnificence of the good news of a cure. This is to prepare us for a Christmas that is really the joyful “counterpoint” to sin. After a devoutly celebrated Advent, at Christmas we can declare with ancient Israel, Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord! Advent sets the stage for Christmas joy by reminding us of the drama of sin that threatens to destroy us. Suddenly, Christ appears to cast out our ancient enemy! And then we can say, Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
One of the great problems in the Church today is the suppression of the “bad news.” Many in the Church prefer not to talk clearly and directly about sin. If it is mentioned at all, it is usually by way of abstractions and generalities. The paradoxical result of this suppression is not a happier Church, but a lukewarm, in some ways sadder one. Largely gone are the religious festivals, the joyful processions, and the confident public expression of Catholic faith.
So, remember this: a good Advent sets the stage for a joyful Christmas. This joy is different from the sentimentality about snow, lights, and tinsel. It is a deep, grateful joy that comes from knowing we are loved and have been rescued despite our sin. Permanent joy and salvation await us if we persevere in running the race of faith. Paradoxically, it comes from being deeply aware of our sinful condition.
Make a good Advent. Listen carefully to its message: “You need a savior!” If you deny sin, you deny the Savior. If you deny the Savior and the need for salvation, then Christmas and the cross are emptied of meaning.
Will Christmas be for you a mere holiday, or will it be a holyday?
This song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” speaks of Israel as a captive in need of ransom, mourning in exile. But then comes this refrain: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”