Sunday, December 18, 2011

Oh come, oh come, our Lord of might.

An antiphon is a short sentence sung or chanted before the psalm or canticle in certain liturgical traditions. The seven "O Antiphons" date back to the ancient Church and are used to celebrate the final seven days of Advent, the last week before Christmas. Each O Antiphon is a name of Christ or one of his attributes described in Scripture. You probably recognize them as from the verses of the popular Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Isaiah had prophesied:

"[...] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins." Isaiah 11:4-5

"For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us." Isaiah 33:22

Lord of Might.

May I confess something here?

I know that it is only by the Gospel that I am saved. And I know that it's very popular these days to focus on the Gospel, on a message of love, on judge-not and do-not-condemn and love-one-another.

But I'm an INTJ and you know what? I like the law.

I like structure. I like order. I like boundaries. I like knowing what I should and should not, can and cannot do. I like knowing that there's someone up there making a list and checking it twice, knowing exactly who's naughty and nice.

Of course, I fail. I'm painfully aware of how short I fall of the glory of God, as they say; how severely I've failed to live up to those Ten Commandments. And I'm sure there's more sin of which I'm not even aware. No matter how I pretend otherwise, I'm definitely on the Naughty list.

But I feel a certain kinship with that Judging aspect of God. Which, of course, is the problem, because since I'm not God, my judgements are woefully inadequate and biased and really generally probably not appropriate.

Sometimes, though, it's nice to think you're on the side of a powerful God, the Lord of might, as the hymn translation of this antiphon puts it. I like to think of the wicked being struck down with a fiery breath.

Until I remember and I'm forced to confront the reality that I'm one of those wicked people. I'm one of the ones who would wither, helpless and righteously condemned, beneath the just and powerful breath of that very Lord of might.

Read again this antiphon. Notice the contrast, the turn, to steal a term from the Shakespearean sonnet, from Lawgiver to Redeemer, from the fearsome apparition in the burning bush to the Father with open arms.

That very powerful God, who has the power to judge, to condemn, to rule? Only someone so powerful could save me from the fate I deserve. I find Isaiah's verse, with its own turn, so fitting: "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king," the Lord is mighty and powerful and fearsome--and "He will save us."

That's what Christmas, and Christianity, is all about, isn't it? It's both.

The omnipotent God, mighty to condemn and mighty to save.

The Law that shows us how badly we need the Gospel.

The baby who comes at Christmas to die on Good Friday to rise on Easter.

God set out rules. He doesn't need to keep a list of who's naughty and who's nice, because we know the truth: we're all naughty. We all deserve so much worse than coal in our stockings, and He alone has the power to see we get exactly what we deserve.

But then that little baby came at Christmas, and He alone has the power to bring us a gift better than any we've ever found under a tree.

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

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