O Adonai: Our Need of Holiness 2016

Today’s O antiphon is my favourite because it weaves together several themes I have always considered important and turns them into the purest prayer:

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!

We are back with Moses in the desert, ‘the humblest man alive’, with whom God speaks ‘face to face, as with a friend’ and the Holy One chooses to reveal himself to him at a moment of his own choosing, and in his own way. Did sheer curiosity lead Moses to the Burning Bush, or did he look more closely than we do, who would probably pass by the sight with some banal remark about how dry the scrub is 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 put off till tomorrow what God invites us to 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 we have here 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? Do we ‘waste time’ with God or do we try to avoid any encounter, filling our lives with irreproachably good activities we can use as a screen against him? Are we prepared to risk holiness? Our answers to these questions will tell us a lot about ourselves and our need of holiness. It is no good wanting the world to be other than it is unless we are prepared to be changed ourselves. Holiness is not an optional extra for a Christian or something we can safely leave to the ‘professionals’, it is the vocation of each and every one of us.

Recently I have been saddened by some of the remarks I’ve read on Social Media. One this morning was a sick jibe against religious sisters in the U.S.A. which, as one might expect, attracted more of the same from the writer’s followers. That is not holiness. It achieved nothing of value. I doubt it led to anyone’s conversion (it just made me think less of the writer). Even the laughter it provoked was of the kind St Benedict regards as unwholesome, destructive. To destroy is the devil’s work, and we can easily become part of it without realising what we are doing. We can contribute to the store of anger and ill-will in the world; and although it may seem insignificant in the general scheme of things, it matters — because everything, everyone, matters. We can build up or tear down: the choice is ours.

The responsorial psalm at Mass today acts as a kind of commentary on O Adonai, especially these verses:

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?
The man with clean hands and pure heart,
who desires not worthless things.

Clean hands, a pure heart and a desire for what is worthy. Isn’t that what we all need today and every day? Isn’t that what God desires of us, that he may give himself to us? To know our need of God is the beginning of holiness. We can be quite sure that he will respond generously. In fact, he already has — in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.

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Lordship: O Adonai 2015

Is it easier for medievalists to sing today’s O antiphon than it is for others? We have so many apparently strange notions buzzing round our heads, from royal unction to feudal lordship and quasi-mystical conceptions of law and theology. We are (or should be) at home in the world of the Old Testament and the catena of texts the Fathers drew on to illuminate the meaning of scriptural references and ideas. Today’s antiphon is challenging, to say the least:

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!

We are invited to pray for the coming of Christ as absolute sole Lord of our lives, as Adonai, Master of the Universe, transcendent holiness — not as brother or companion on the way. He is leader and law-giver, ruler and redeemer, the beautiful fruit of Israel’s patient fidelity to the Covenant, but one who dwells in unapproachable fire and flame. We catch glimpses of him if we are prepared to venture beyond the ordinary and everyday but, most of the time, if we are honest, we miss the burning bush and see only low-growing scrub. Today, however, we are asked to do more than that, to open our eyes to the mystery within the ordinary, to the presence of Christ here and now. Advent turns on a paradox: the Lord is very near!

Note: today’s O antiphon, text and music (Flash needed) is available with scripture references here, http://bit.ly/1roZnkA

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Our Need of Holiness

Having posted on today’s O antiphon, ‘O Adonai’, every year since I began blogging, I thought I would give both you and me a rest; but I find I can’t, because our need of holiness, of redemption, of the gift of prayer, grows ever greater. So, you will find the text, translation, music and some scriptural notes here, and if you want to know what I’ve said in previous years, please type ‘O Adonai’ into the search box on the right.

What strikes me this morning is the humility of holiness. God could have impressed Moses with a sense of his infinite transcendence in many ways, but he chose to capture his attention using a burning bush. Moses’ curiosity led him to God; and only after he had heard God speak did he realise that he was on holy ground. Prayer is rather like that. We tend to think that we are calling on God, only to realise later that God first called to us; and just as Moses’ life was transformed by his encounter with the mysterious presence at the heart of the burning bush, so our lives too are transformed by the encounter with God in prayer.

Sometimes we try to avoid prayer because we are afraid of what God may ask of us. We try to run away like Jonah, or we get into a huff like Naaman because things don’t go the way we expect and want. Sometimes we just give up on it because it seems too hard or unrewarding. We want to be mystics and have wonderful supernatural experiences and forget that, for most people, most of the time,  prayer is a much humbler, much more plodding business. There is no mystery about prayer, although prayer draws us into the heart of a great Mystery. God speaks to us where we are, in the desert of our lives, through the ordinary and everyday much more often than through the strange and spectacular. Our job is to listen and allow ourselves to be transformed: God will not force us. We tend to overlook that, because we have never quite understood the humility of God.

The prayer we make in today’s antiphon requires our consent to be answered — the searing holiness of God desires our redemption, but only if we will allow it. To have such power over God is the paradox of being human.

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O Adonai: the holiness of God

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.
 

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.

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