Light for Those in Darkness
Brought to You by the Letter “O”
One of the most beloved songs of Advent is the famous “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” However, few people are aware of the origin of this classic. During the last 7 days of Advent, the official Evening Prayer of the Church contained in the Liturgy of the Hours has a series of special antiphons to accompany the chanting of the Magnificat. Each antiphon invokes a different title of of the coming messiah. They also all happen to start with the letter/word “O” and hence have come to be known as the “O” antiphons. Each of the 7 verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is actually an arrangement of one of these famous antiphons which date back to the 5th century.
Today’s homily explores each of these seven antiphons and how they can make Advent, and the famous song, more meaningful. The Latin and English texts of the antiphons follow:
LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
LATIN: O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento..
ENGLISH: O Lord and Ruler the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come, and redeem us with outstretched arms.
LATIN: O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.
ENGLISH: O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: come, to deliver us, and tarry not.
LATIN: 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.
ENGLISH: O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and bring forth the captive from his prison, he who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.
LATIN: O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.
ENGLISH: O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
LATIN: O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
ENGLISH: O King of the gentiles and their desired One, the cornerstone that makes both one: come, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.
LATIN: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
ENGLISH: O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.
Balaam and His Advent Donkey
The time of Advent and Christmas is filled with traditional stories. The greatest story ever told is that of the birth of Jesus. We’ve got stories of shepherds and magi. We even have beloved secular stories like The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. One lesser known classic Christmas story is actually found in the book of Number in chapters 23 and 24. Our first reading today gives us the very end, but misses the best part of the story. Nothing says “Christmas” like a talking donkey, and that’s exactly what we have for your listening pleasure today. So light the fire, gather the kids, press play, and relax for the telling of a Christmas classic.
Freedom from Edom
The prophet Isaiah prophesies in today’s first reading that “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.” The places referred to here are not generic but actually refer to the region south of the Dead Sea on Israel’s southeastern border. This region was the land of Israel’s great rival, the land of Edom. The kingdom’s of Judah and Edom were constantly waring back and forth and taking over the other’s land. Edom was a real thorn in the side of Judah and there was never peace with them but always stress and tension.
It is to this dry and battle-plagued region that Isaiah addresses words of comfort. “Fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication.” God is coming to smite Edom and bring peace to his people in Judah. Notice that God’s people do not save themselves. They need their vindicator. The words of Isaiah are also meant to bring comfort to us today.
What are the stresses in our life that are constantly tugging at our borders like Edom? No doubt there are many external pressures. Yet, the greatest force that makes war on us and robs us of our peace is our own sinfulness. How often we become discouraged by our sins and weighed down with guilt. The devil leads us into sin and then is there constantly beating us up over our failures. God says to us “Fear not!” He comes to be our vindicator and wants to bring peace to our borders.
Notice however that, like Israel, we cannot save ourselves. Our vindicator comes to us through the Sacrament of Pennance to bring us his peace and healing. The other problem Edom created for Israel was that they cut off the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem so that people could not worship God in freedom. Sin does the same thing to us. It prevents us from worshiping God with a clean heart in freedom.
This Advent, let’s get to confession. Let’s allow God to defeat the Edom in our life and open the way home to full participation in the sacramental life of the Church. If we do this, we will indeed have great cause to sing Gaudete, Rejoice! Our God comes to save us and bring us his peace.
Prepared for a Mission
In today’s celebration we recognize the great gift that God gave to Mary in protecting her from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception in the womb of her mother Anne. In this singular privilege, we see that God had a mission in mind for Mary from before she even existed. Indeed, he had her in mind right from the beginning in Genesis when the first woman failed to say yes to God. Mary would be the new Eve that would say yes to God and her son would crush the head of the serpent.
God preserved Mary from original sin in order to prepare her to be the Mother of God. That was the mission for which she was created. We too have our mission. God also knew us before we were conceived. As was true for Mary, we’ve got to find our mission for which God has prepared us. We honor God today for the gift given to Mary. However, we also honor Mary for saying yes to this rather frightening and unknown plan of God. We pray that through her intercession, we too may always say yes to God’s plan for our life.
O Christmas Stump
One can hardly imagine Christmas without the traditional symbol of the Christmas tree. However, in today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah gives us an even greater symbol for this time of year…the “Christmas stump.”
Isaiah prophesies that “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of King David. David was of course the greatest king in the history of Israel. It was to David that God made the special promise that one of his heirs would always be seated on his throne ruling over God’s people. By the time of Isaiah, David’s family tree should have been, figuratively speaking, a huge and stately tree. So why a stump?
Sadly, God’s people quickly turned away from God and his promises. By the time of Isaiah, the dynasty of David had been destroyed through division and exile. It was no more than a stump. Yet, in the midst of this despair, Isaiah prophesies that the tree is not dead. In fact, a shoot will sprout from this stump of Jesse. This shoot is the coming messiah, the everlasting king to rule of God’s people forever just as he had promised.
Jesus is this shoot prophesied by Isaiah. Just as the people of Israel looked with hope for the coming of the messiah, so we too wait expectantly during this Advent for the coming of Jesus. Just as Isaiah prophesied hope in the midst of sadness, a shoot from an apparently dead stump, so we too must look to Jesus to be our hope in the midst of our own struggles and difficulties.
Today, the Church extends it’s branches to every corner of the world just as God promised David so long ago. We have our king Jesus, a descendant of David, ruling over all peoples everywhere. If our life seems to be more like a stump than a fruitful tree right now, Isaiah’s prophecy is our answer; Jesus is the answer. Have hope. From this stump will come a shoot.
3 Guides for Advent
The Thanksgiving holiday is often a time known for stuffing ourselves with turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie, and a whole host of other delectable cuisine. If we were to have a mascot for this 1st Sunday of Advent it seems that a big stuffed turkey would fit nicely. Yet now in the Church we begin something new. A new liturgical year has begun and the new season of Advent calls for something different than the Thanksgiving feasting we’ve been doing since Thursday. The Church gives us three rather counter-cultural guides through the season, the prophet Isaiah, St. John the Baptist, and our Blessed Mother Mary.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah calls us to focus on the mountain of the Lord. It’s difficult to climb a mountain, but Isaiah beckons us up. From the top of a mountain you gain perspective. You are able to look forward and backward, to see where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Advent is a time for gaining some perspective and taking the time to contemplate in quiet as on a mountaintop with God.
Secondly, we have St. John the Baptist. Whereas everyone seems to be running busily and buying things, eating large feasts, and trying to accumulate presents, we instead find John in the wilderness. He gets away from it all and goes out to eat locusts and wild honey. That’s the true food of Advent. John’s great message to us is simple, “repent.” Perhaps the path to God is a little crooked. Take some time this Advent to turn back to God, to get to confession. The real threat to our Christmas joy will not be a lack of presents, but a lack of repentance.
Finally, Mary is the star of the season of Advent. She lives simply in a little cave in Nazareth where, in the peace and quiet, she is able to hear God’s voice. She encounters the angel Gabriel and says yes to God’s plan. Above all, Mary is marked by great joy. We’ve all got to have the joyful longing for the birth of Jesus the way Mary did as she carried him in her womb. Notice too that in her joy Mary’s first thought is to run to help her cousin Elizabeth. Rather than selfishly focusing on herself as is so easy to do during Advent, Mary is thinking of how to help others, how she herself can be a present to someone else. Acts of charity are so important to having a good Advent.
These three great figures of the story of Christmas are our guides through this season. If we follow society we are likely to arrive at Christmas day worn out, tied from all the partying and shopping, and probably broke. Let’s instead follow the example of Isaiah, John, and Mary. If we do that, we will arrive at Christmas spiritually filled, full of God’s presence, and ready to begin celebrating.
Now but Not Yet
As we celebrate this last Sunday in Ordinary Time we honor Jesus Christ our King. We celebrate and look forward to his return in glory. Yet we also prepare to “start over” at the beginning as the season of Advent begins next weekend. So is it the end or the beginning? Well, it’s both. The kingdom of God which we celebrate is truly present “now,” but is also “not yet” fully here and is still coming. This is the tension that we live in as we continue our pilgrimage through time.
Our church building actually helps us to keep our focus on the end. When we enter the church building we are, for a brief period, leaving the outside world and are able to touch heaven. Whenever we gather for Mass, we come from the “not yet” of our everyday life, with all its sufferings and struggles, into the eternal “now” celebrated in the liturgy where heaven touches earth and Jesus Christ truly reigns as king. As we enter the church we may not think much about the door through which we enter, but it has a significance. In traditional architecture the door to a church is often designed the reflect that of the classical “triumphal arch” such as the Arch of Constantine in Rome with its three gates. This is to remind us that as we enter the church, we do so a victors. We are triumphant in the victory that Christ has won for us.
Our church building also points us to the “not yet” of Christ’s reign. We still await his return in glory. Churches used to be built facing toward the east and both the priest and the people faced east together in one procession. As the fathers of the Church teach, Jesus ascended to the east and promised to return just as he went. We look to the east with great expectation. Just as the sun rises in the east bringing the hope of a new day, so too we look to the east awaiting the new day of the return of the king. We likewise remember that the Garden of Eden was in the east and thus we are reminded here we are in exile and long for our true home with God.
While we eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ our King we also know that with his return comes judgement. As we look to the east we traditionally see on the wall the cross, the symbol of our victory. It reminds us that we have a king that gives us only the rules that will help us and, even when we break them, he takes the punishment on himself. We must do our part as we make our way through the “not yet” of this world, but God’s mercy also allows us to be eager in expecting the return of Jesus Christ the King.
Today’s Gospel paints what seems to be a pretty bleak picture of discipleship. If you follow Jesus, he promises that everyone will hate you and you’ll be killed. Rather than happy days without end, Jesus promises his followers suffering and trials. As we come to the end of our liturgical year, we should see these sufferings not as a destructive force, but rather as a purifying fire.
We tend to look at a forest fire and immediately want to put it out. Yet, sometimes a fire is exactly what the forest needs to be healthy. The fire burns up all the dead wood and debris and all the undesirable plants and trees. In the process seeds are released for new trees. The fire actually rejuvenates the forest even as it seemingly destroys. God’s love for us is a lot like this. He is a purifying fire that wants to burn up all the selfishness and sin that threatens to choke out the beautiful forest of his grace.
At the end of the Gospel Jesus reminds us that, in the face of all the suffering and trials, there is one thing we must do…persevere. The Greek work for perseverance (hypomone) implies patiently baring with difficulty, holding out until the end. Yet it also has a second meaning. It also means waiting expectantly, longing, hoping. We don’t just bear the difficulties of life with no purpose. They point us forward to a time when there will be no more suffering. We need a longing for the coming of that day.
The prophet Malachi in the first reading speaks of the coming of this day. There will be fire like an oven, but for those who love God he tells us that the “sun of justice” will comfort us with his “healing rays.” As we go through the difficulties of this life we’ve got to have our eyes fixed on the east, awaiting the rising of the sun of justice. This is the day of the coming of our king that will end all the suffering in his healing rays and bring about a new heavens and a new earth. We celebrate his feast next week with the Solemnity of Christ the King.
Until then, our task is clear. Hypomone…perseverance…enduring and longing. “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
A Marriage Proposal from God
In today’s Gospel, some of the Jewish leaders try to trap Jesus in what appears to be a debate about marriage laws. However, the supposed question is really a subtle attack on the teaching about the resurrection. Jesus of course does not fall into the trap. Rather, as he so often does, he turns the tables and uses it as an opportunity for teaching. However, Jesus’ answer to the question might create even more questions for us. He says simply that in heaven there is no marriage.
Given all the beautiful things the Church teaches about marriage, what is Jesus trying to say here? If marriage is so holy, why would there not be marriage in heaven? The key here is to understand that when we acknowledge that marriage is a sacrament, we are saying that it is a sacred sign. It is a sign that points to something else. In the case of marriage, the sign of the love between spouses in this world is meant to point us to the love of God.
The reason that there is no marriage in heaven is because in heaven it will be as though we are all married to God. The intimate union of life and love shared between spouses is only a foreshadowing and small part of the infinite love of God we are all meant to experience in heaven. This truth helps make sense of the celibate vocation as well. The celibate priest or religious forgoes the earthly sign of marriage to point to the heavenly reality.
In this month of November, we begin by recognizing all the saints. They remind us that heaven is our goal. Let us pray that during this month we might stir up a great desire for heaven, to pray for the poor souls in purgatory, that one day we will all be together at the heavenly marriage feast.