O Rex Gentium | 22 December 2020

potter's hands shaping clay

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 two one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

Every year I hum and haw about how to translate this antiphon. Do I smooth over the awkwardnesses, to produce something easy on the ear but not quite true to the original? Do I opt for a more literal version, in the hope that it will jerk the casual reader into awareness of some of the complex references in the text? Or do I compromise, allowing some ungainliness but still aiming at an acceptable level of clarity and comprehension?

The problem is that many of the themes to which the antiphon alludes are no longer popular. Kingship is an alien concept to most, and even those — perhaps especially those — with a knowledge of kingship in the Ancient World may baulk at the idea of God as king. Absolute authority makes us uncomfortable. Much better the transient authority conferred by social media and the search engines. At least that passes! But Israel always wanted a king, to be like the other nations, and only gradually came to see that God alone could adequately fulfil that role. For us today the chief significance of the phrase is that gentile Christians are now welcomed into the Covenant and share with Israel its privileges, above all its ‘special relationship’ with God. But what about that Desideratus earum, the desired of all nations? The context is 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). Can we genuinely make a claim for the universality of Christ? This phrase questions how we understand the Messiah and each of us must answer for him or herself.

With the next few phrases we are on happier ground. We know how fragile and divided the world in which we live is. We call on God to save us. He is the corner-stone, the rock on which we can rely. But he is also the potter, the creator who loves us into being. Clay is malleable in a way we often resist. The idea of being re-shaped, re-formed, is not an entirely attractive one until we think where it leads. I was tempted to illustrate this post with a black and white photo from the monastery kitchen: it shows Christ creating Adam, perfect in beauty. The loveliness of the image always leads me to prayer, but sometimes beauty can be luxuriated in for its own sake. Perhaps the image of the potter’s hands, caked with clay, almost at the beginning of his work, is more eloquent. There are infinite possibilities open to him. Amazingly, there are infinite possibilities open to us, too:
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. (G. M. Hopkins)

For scripture, I suggest Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians (anywhere)

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