O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7


We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.

Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.

It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.

The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.

The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.


4 thoughts on “O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority”

  1. Very good, thank you.

    You do, however, illuminate something with which I have real problems; God as King. Too often I feel we are told to follow a deity who sometimes seems to behave like a bad-tempered mediaeval monarch, rather than the all-forgiving Father. In an age of democracy and (at least theoretically) complete equality people are not easily going to accept the absolute rule of a monarch, and especially not a human figurehead who acts on the same way.

    Pax upon the convent the Christmas.

  2. With reference to the first comment, I’m confused by the idea that people who believe in God would not easily accept his absolute rule. I know I am forgiven, but also believe God wants me to do better. Therefore, I am more than prepared to put myself under his discipline, even though I know I constantly fail him, and am not always sure what he wants me to do. Love is the key, I know that.

  3. Thank you for your comments. I think different people have difficulties with different images used of God in the scriptures. For some, the king image is incomprehensible; for others the idea of God as Father is impossible to relate to; and even though we know that any language used of God is inadequate, we still have to struggle with it. There is no easy answer. Sometimes it can be helpful to think of why, for example, the Israelites were so keen to have a king: they wanted someone to protect them, to intercede with God for them, to maintain law and order . . .

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