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.


The Right Thing to Do

British politicians seem to have adopted ‘the right thing to do’ as their catch-phrase of choice. It suggests high moral purpose, deep thought and a noble sticking to principle. I shall be very surprised if David Cameron does not tell Parliament this afternoon that exercising Britain’s veto at the E.U. summit was ‘the right thing to do’.

The trouble with claiming something is ‘the right thing to do’ is that very few choices in life are simple, and a bad or ill-informed decision cannot be defended by appealing to some vague conception of ‘rightness’. On the other hand, we all regularly have to make decisions on the basis of imperfect knowledge and imperfect grasp of possible consequences. Today’s collect captures this sense of moral confusion by asking the light of Christ to shine on the darkness of our heart, tenebras cordis nostri. The darkness (tenebrae) referred to is a little more definite than mere obscuritas but not quite so intense as caligo — not darkness as a deliberate choice of evil so much as darkness caused by laziness or lack of knowledge.

Advent calls us out into the desert in order to rediscover what the Covenant is all about, to prepare a highway for God in our hearts, to allow the light of Christ to shine on our darkness. We may be in a fog about many things, but turning to the Lord is always the right thing to do. As Hosea assures us, he is our Teacher who will show us the way — if we are prepared to listen.