O Adonai | 18 December 2020

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.
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm!

With this antiphon, my favourite of all the Great ‘O’s, which reveals the unutterable holiness of God’s name, we are back with Moses in the desert, ‘the humblest man alive’. With him God speaks ‘face to face, as with a friend’, but the Holy One chooses to reveal himself to him at a moment of his own choosing, in his own way. There is no presumption, no casualness about the meeting; no suggestion that they are on equal terms. God is a God of infinite holiness.

Did sheer curiosity lead Moses to the Burning Bush, or did he look more closely than we do, who might easily pass by the sight with some banal remark about how bad the wildfires are this year? Would we dare to go into the dazzling darkness of the mountain and hear God speak, or would we be more likely to think a stormy day not the best time to climb its slopes and so put off till tomorrow what God invites us to do today?

And if we did see the Burning Bush, and if we did receive the tablets of the Law on Sinai, would we realise their significance? Would we see that the whole earth has become holy ground and the divine law is inscribed on the tablets of human hearts — that everything has changed and redemption become possible? Finally, would we make that prayer, asking God to redeem us, to do what we cannot, confident that he will hear and answer?

I think this antiphon contains the secret of holiness: Moses looked at God, not himself; and he was so filled with what he saw that we are told the very skin of his face shone. Does our face glow with holiness? Do we make people happier, more determined to be charitable, kind, neighbourly; or do we leave them brooding over other people’s shortcomings and all that’s wrong in the world?

At this point in Advent when the spread of COVID-19 is having a negative impact on many people’s lives, it is worth asking ourselves whether we contribute to the general gloom or is our faith, weak and wobbly though it seem to us, one on which others can lean and draw strength. We all have ‘down’ moments, and it can be difficult to be supportive of others when we feel drained. What we have to learn, again and again if my experience is anything to go by, is that it doesn’t all depend on us. If we think it does, if we are consciously trying to make superhuman efforts, we are indulging in heroics, not cultivating holiness, and it is likely to end badly. It was when Moses forgot God and tried to do things his own way that disaster struck — yet he could argue that his intentions were good, as ours always are, aren’t they?

Today’s antiphon reminds us of Moses’ modesty, his friendship with God and his receptivity to God’s holiness. I suggest reading Exodus 3; Isaiah 11.4-5; Isaiah 33.22 and thinking about the way in which we conceive of God and our relationship with him. Do we ‘waste time’ in prayer; do we let God be God in our lives and the lives of others? The recording is of the antiphon sung in Latin.

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Transfiguration 2020

When the Cluniacs gave the Church the beautiful feast of the Transfiguration, they can have had no idea how it would come to be associated with both some of the blackest and potentially most luminous events in history. The dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima seventy-five years ago today has seared the memory of us all with its strange and terrible glare that brought darkness upon the world, a darkness we can never deny or undo. But go on a little. In 1981 Sir Tim Berners-Lee published the first page of what would become the world wide web, the potential of which is still unfolding. It is a light in the darkness, an example of human skill and visionary impulse which can be used for good not ill. Then we think of Lebanon and the misery brought about (apparently) by human greed and corruption and there are no words, only silence and tears and an inarticulate appeal to the mercy of God.

When Jesus climbed Mount Tabor and was transfigured in the presence of his disciples, he allowed them to glimpse his glory as God in his human flesh. Some scholars think the Transfiguration occurred at night. For me, that makes the disciples’ experience not only mysterious but compelling: an event so unexpected that it has to be remembered. The disciples were forced to remember it in every detail, made to recall their inadequate response (poor Peter, getting it wrong again!), puzzle over it, pray over it. I think that is why the Cluniacs developed a liturgy to celebrate the Transfiguration and why the Universal Church adopted it as a feast. The Transfiguration helps us take those things we don’t really understand and hand them over to God to deal with because he knows what he is doing even when we don’t. It allows us to see beyond our human limitations. It lets God into the human situation with an intensity and freedom we might otherwise try to prevent. In short, it means God is God here and now, no matter how much we try to thwart him.

Audio version

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