The Cry of Anguish

‘The hardest thing in life,’ wrote the young André Gide in his journal of 1890, ‘is to be sincere.’ Our generation might amend that slightly: the hardest thing in life is to distinguish the sincere from the fake or merely opportune. Sometimes, even our prayer seems tinged with insincerity. Do I truly want what I say I do in this prayer, to be completely converted to the Lord/forgiving/generous or whatever, or am I like St Augustine, desiring chastity, but definitely not yet?

During the past few days we have been considering a few phrases from the ‘O’ antiphons. Their simplicity and directness are immediately attractive, but then we find something in them that requires effort because it has elements alien to our current ways of thought. Take today’s antiphon’:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster. 
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the One for whom the nations long and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

The piling up of all those grandiloquent titles is excellent theology and history, but, if we are honest, doesn’t it make God seem a little remote? We are not accustomed to addressing him as though he were some Eastern potentate. We are more comfortable with the idea of God as loving Father — a kind of SuperDad perhaps. We ignore the obvious, that God is as far above our understanding as the heavens are above the earth, and condemn the unfamiliar as insincere. But consider the antiphon’s final phrase, ‘Come and save us, Lord our God.’ Nowhere else in the sequence do we make that direct reference to the Lord our God Our last word, so to say, is very simple and sincere: it is the cry of anguish uttered from the heart: Come and save us, Lord our God. We spend our lives learning that we cannot save ourselves. All our fine words, all our magnificent gestures, come down to this: we need a Saviour, the one who will first appear among us in the fragility of a baby’s body on Christmas Night. Let us pray that he will come to us and save us.

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O Emmanuel and Our Need of God 2016

There can be no doubt about it. With today’s O antiphon we have touched rock bottom. All our fine phrases, our careful allusions to salvation history, our bold attempts to name God and so have some sort of power over him (as if we could!), come down to this: a desperate plea for a desperate plight. For the first time we address him as ‘Lord our God’ and humbly, brokenly, ask him to come and save us. Before we get to that point, however, we pile up title after title used in previous antiphons, as though to make sure we miss none out that might touch his heart. But there can be no disguising the fact that this antiphon leaves us stripped naked, acknowledging our need of God, just as, on Christmas morning, God in Christ will stand naked before us, needing our love.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the One for whom the nations hope and long and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.

Many a Christmas sermon will dwell on the meaning of Emmanuel, God-with-us, but if we are honest, most of us know times when God, if there is a god, seems distant, unapproachable, not interested in us or our doings. We look at the latest disaster and ask, ‘Where was God when those children died, screaming in agony, in Aleppo?’ ‘Where was God when that lorry plunged into the crowd in Berlin?’ ‘Where was God when X died, or I lost my home or job, or I found out I had a terminal illness?’ These are legitimate questions, and the standard answer, that God was with us as we suffered, rarely convinces. We need a God not afar off but close at hand, and for many, God is not close at hand.

Perhaps instead of trying to answer the question ‘where was God?’ we have to explore the question ‘where is God?’ At first sight, that may seem like mere word-play of the most barren kind; but if we stop and think about it, it is anything but. To ask where was God is to ask a question of history, to go back in time; to ask where is God is to pray and enter into a relationship with him here and now. And that surely, is what the Incarnation has brought about in a most wonderful way. We cannot fear God or think him unapproachable when we know that in Christ he has taken human flesh and blood and been born, just as we are, just as dependent as we are. He cannot undo that — he has bound himself to us for ever and is with us to the end of time. Whatever happens, however low we fall, however much distress or failure we experience, the Everlasting Arms are beneath us. God is indeed with us.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS AND CHRISTMAS NEWSLETTER
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.

Our Christmas Newsletter is available online here: http://eepurl.com/cukCsr. It has a stunning photo of the sun shining on the earth taken from space.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

God With Us: O Emmanuel 2015

There are times when it seems God is not with us. We look at what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and shake our heads in disbelief. The haunting image of dead bodies washed ashore in Italy or Greece or the blood spilled over the streets of Paris makes us want to cry out, ‘Where is God?’ We read report after report of murder, violence, the abuse of children, corruption in high places and wonder, ‘How can this be?’ Then we experience some unexpected kindness or are caught unawares by a glimpse of beauty and are not so sure. Perhaps there is a god after all, but is he the God of Christian revelation? Is he a god near at hand or a god far off? Today’s O antiphon has an answer to that question, but it also tries to go further and say something about the way in which we respond:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.

Yes, God is with us; God is our King; God is our law-giver; he is the One the gentiles long for, perhaps without realising it; he is their Saviour, although not always acknowledged as such. Our heads assent to these statements. But then the antiphon turns them all into heart-wrenching personal prayer: come and save us, Lord our God. Our God is not a god far off, more or less indifferent to our fate. He is involved, he cares. And our need is such that all the grandiloquent titles in the world must give way to that urgent prayer. We do not pray in abstractions; we do not pray for others only, in some misguided attempt to be super-altruistic; we pray for ourselves, humbly, passionately, knowing that God will hear us. On Christmas morning we shall receive God’s answer to our prayer when he comes among us as the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

Note: The text and music of today’s antiphon may be found here: http://bit.ly/1roZnkAFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Come and Save Us: O Emmanuel

Today’s O antiphon is

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

I always think there is a kind of desperation in today’s O antiphon. We pile on the titles of God — Emmanuel, King, Giver of the Law, Desired of the Nations, Saviour of the Peoples — as though by making sure we have missed none out, we could be more certain of being heard. Then, when we have done all that, our exhausted plea is very simple: come and save us. That final, poignant ‘Lord our God’ is wrung from our very heart. God is indeed our hope and salvation, in whom we trust despite ourselves.

If you are blessed with a serene and unhesitating faith, none of this will make sense; but I suspect many wrestle with questions of faith and doubt, presence and absence, and know that we must somehow bring this inner turmoil of thought and feeling to God for healing and redemption. Advent now has almost completed its task in us. Today we stand naked before God, just as, in a couple of days, the Son of God will stand naked before us in the Child born at Bethlehem. Our defences are down, we know ourselves for what we are. Soon, very soon, we shall be privileged to know God for who and what he is: Emmanuel, God-with-us.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Our Need of God

As the poignant cadences of O Emmanuel die away in the darkness, we know we have reached the culmination of Advent. In that moment, we call on God to be with us as King and Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and our Salvation; the prayer we make is simple: save us! In effect, we have been brought to the point where we know our need of God, and the greater the need the starker the expression.

Sometimes we want a great many other things as well as God. We want success, security, someone to love and be loved by — all good things in themselves. The difficulty starts when we want these things more than God or rather, we want them in a way that isn’t quite as God intended. When we want success so that we can be comfortable and maybe show others how well we’ve done in life; security so that we don’t have to risk anything or trust God in any real sense; someone to love and be loved by for rather selfish ends (which, of course, is not truly love, but we often mistake possessiveness for love). Sooner or later, however, we shall have to face up to the question: do we want God in our lives or not; do we want to be saved or not.

We began the sequence of O antiphons by asking God for the gift of wisdom; we complete it by asking for God in himself, as he is. That reflects the rhythm of all prayer. We usually begin by asking for this gift or that. Only gradually do we come to see that there is only one gift to be asked for, and that it must be given in the way that God chooses. When he gives himself to us this Christmas, as a baby born in a troubled part of a great empire, member of a people despised by many, let us remember that that is how God willed to come among us and offer us salvation. Let us pray that our hearts and minds may open to embrace so great a gift.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

O Emmanuel: God with us

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

Today’s Mass readings, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66, taken together with Isaiah 7.14, provide more than enough to think about as we listen to the antiphon:

 

We are very close to the birth we are waiting for. The prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, and the question with which the gospel ends is one we must ask not just of John’s birth but of Jesus’ also: ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ Sometimes people assume that ‘good’ Christians have no doubts, never ask questions, never experience a sense of bewilderment in the face of cruelty or disaster. That is demonstrably untrue. To be a Christian is surely to live with uncertainty, relying on the gift of faith to bridge the gap between our understanding and our questioning. Tonight’s antiphon reminds us that the God we seek is not a God afar off, but God-with-us, one who has shared our humanity and calls us to share in his divinity.

O Emmanuel expresses the theology of this in a few, meaning-rich phrases. Notice that expectatio gentium, although translated as ‘Desired of the nations’, really has more the sense of ‘hope’ or even more literally, ‘expectation’. The antiphon takes up and develops all the themes of the previous six. Christ is welcomed as God-with-us, King of David’s line, the true Law-giver, one who is the fulfilment of every human (= gentile) hope and longing, whose gift of salvation is open to all. The petition with which the antiphon ends is absolutely clear about the divine nature and mission of the Messiah: ‘come and save us, Lord our God.’

There in a nutshell is what Christmas is about. In his compassion and love, God wills to take our human flesh and blood and redeem us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our salvation is very near. It began with Mary’s generous-hearted consent to be the Mother of God. It will take physical shape with the birth of Jesus on Christmas night. It will be completed only when all are one with Him in the Kingdom. Truly, this is ‘a mystery hidden from long ages, a secret into which even angels long to look!Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail