O Rex Gentium (Dec. 22)

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi (detail, c. 1481-2, Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

O Desire 
of all nations and people,
you are the strong force
that draws us toward you,
the pattern which choreographs creation
to Love’s bright music.


Come: teach us the steps
that we may dance with you.

The sixth Antiphon goes to the heart of the Advent mystery: we are made of longing, born with a core of desire, an unquenchable thirst, for something we lack. Advent invites us to remember our longing and identify our deepest desire.

Some people think that Christianity is about the eradication of desire. Not so. Faith is the education of desire, weaning it from false objects and inadequate attainments, and directing it toward its true and ultimate end, the divine communion of the holy and undivided Trinity, the ceaseless dance of love which we are invited to share. 

Thomas Traherne, 17th-century Anglican poet, said, “Be sensible of your wants, that you may be sensible of your treasures.” What he meant was, if we want to know who we are, and why we are here, we need to pay attention to our deepest hunger, our deepest longing. What do we really want? What do we long for above all else?

When you figure that out––that is where you’ll find God: in the place where your desire is strongest. It doesn’t matter what name it goes by. Pay attention. Dig deeper. God is there.

Projections of Picasso’s art on the surfaces of a limestone cave (Carrieres des Lumieres, Les Baux de Provence, 2018).

O Oriens (Dec. 21)

Dawn on the Camino de Santiago (Maundy Thursday, 2014).

O Rising Dawn, 
bright splendor of the light eternal,
illumining all things with Love’s radiance.

Come: enlighten those who sit in darkness,
who dwell in the shadow of death.

At the beginning of the longest night, this antiphon is preoccupied with light: the eternal radiance of God and the way it penetrates the darkest shadows of history and the human soul. What else is Advent but waiting for the dawn? 

For mystics and theologians, the image of God as light is more than an analogy drawn from physical experience. Splendor and glory are inherent to the very essence of divinity. But for those who sit in darkness––and who has not, at one time or another?––the light of heaven may be eclipsed: hidden from our eyes, absent from our hearts. As songwriter Bruce Cockburn testifies, “Sometimes you have to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

The poet Kathleen Raine describes the time of trial when “the curtain is down, the veil drawn” over the world’s deep radiance. “Nothing means or is,” she says. But that is not where God leaves her:

Yet I saw once
The woven light of which all [things] are made . . .
To have seen
Is to know always.

The Bainbridge Island ferry sails into the dawn (Puget Sound, 2014).

O Clavis David (Dec. 20)

Chiharu Shiota, Keys in the Hand (Venice Biennale 2015).

O Key of David, 
you open, and none can shut;
you shut, and none can open.

Come, lead us out of the prisons
that oppress body, mind and soul;
welcome us into the open space of possibility;
let us breathe again.

This antiphon begins, O Clavis David (“O key of David). The Latin word for “key” was a favorite pun among medieval preachers. Clavis means “key,” but clavus means “nail.” The key that opens the door for us is the nail of Calvary, where Christ died to conquer death and sin.

Jesus, and the divine way of self-diffusive love which he embodied, is the key that unlocks every human prison, from the metal cages on our southern border to the oppressive interior confines of fear, guilt, sin, despair. 

Has you ever been in some kind of prison? Do you remember what you felt when you found the key? What was it like when the door swung open and you walked through it? Perhaps some who read this are still waiting for this key. 

O Clavis, come and lead those who sit in darkness, who live in the shadow of death––or grief, or fear, or addiction. Deliver us all into the place of light and joy and freedom.

Be the key that sets us free.
Open the door and welcome us home.

In Brighton, UK, an alternative worship group, Beyond, turned 24 beach huts into an Advent calendar. Every evening a different hut was opened to reveal an art installation about the coming of Christ. This hut was opened on Christmas Eve, radiating “love’s pure light” into the December night.

O Radix Jesse (Dec. 19)

Gil de Siloé, Tree of Jesse (detail) on the altar retablo in the Chapel of St. Anne, Burgos Cathedral, Spain (c. 1498). The family tree of Jesus grows from the body of King David’s father.

O Root of Jesse, 
coming to flower in Jesus,
who in turn bears fruit
in all who are grafted
into the royal line of God’s family.

Come: let us never be severed
from the roots and branches
that nourish us in every moment.

The “Tree of Jesse,” a frequent motif in Christian art since the 11th century, is Jesus’ family tree, linking him to the Davidic line (Jesse of Bethlehem was David’s father). The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke span 28 and 43 generations respectively, but the number of figures shown on the tree is usually far less due to spatial constraints. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1), and most artists have provided a literal version of that image. The Tree of Jesse thus affirms Jesus’ pedigree as the heir of divine promises given to David, as well as Abraham and others before him. 

But the larger meaning of the root and branch image is that Jesus did not come out of nowhere, disconnected from the long course of human history. He was rooted in an ongoing spiritual evolution of humanity since the dawn of consciousness. His appearance, the product of nature and culture as instruments of the Holy Spirit, was the first flowering of creation’s immense journey toward union with its Creator. 

The New Testament says that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”
(Hebrews 12:2). In the 20th century, the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin expressed this developmental image in terms of a cosmic evolution: “the presence of something greater than ourselves moving forward within us and in our midst.” We are all destined to be blossoms and fruit on the Jesse Tree.

If we are all truly grafted into the royal line of God’s family, how shall we then live––and grow––accordingly? Let us never be severed from the roots and branches that nourish us in every moment. 

This is the third of seven in a daily series on the O Antiphons for the last week of Advent.

O Adonai (Dec. 18)

Christ in Majesty, Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, France (12th century).

O Adonai, 
ruler of time and history,
manifestation of divine dominion
to your chosen people,
may your presence be our burning bush.

Come: bring justice to the poor,
food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless
protection to the vulnerable
,
freedom to the prisoner.

For the ancient Jews, the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush was too holy to be spoken, so they substituted the word Adonai (“my Lord”) when addressing God in their worship. This became Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. We still pray Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) in Christian ritual.

Will Campbell, the Baptist preacher who wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, once asked, “What’s the biggest lie told in America?” The answer he gave was: “Jesus is Lord.” What would our lives––and our neighborhoods, our nation, our economy, our politics––look like if we really believed that the Lord of love and justice, the divine defender of the poor and vulnerable, is in fact the ultimate ruler of time and history? 

Adonai, bring that day closer!

Christ as Pantocrator (ruler of the universe) on the dome of the Katholikon, Hosios Loukas monastery, Greece.

O Sapientia (Dec. 17)

One of the joys of Advent’s final days is the praying of the O Antiphons, seven eloquent prayers based on biblical images suggesting attributes of the divine. Liturgically, they begin and end the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to December 23rd, but they are also a rich resource for personal prayer as Christmas draws near. Each antiphon is both a greeting and a supplication, awakening our attention and shaping our intention.

Over the next seven evenings, I will post a brief reflection on the Antiphon for the coming day.
As you journey to Bethlehem, may you walk in beauty.

Henri Matisse, Dance (1909-1910).

O Sophia,
you are the truth of harmonious form,
the pattern of existence, the shapeliness of love.

Come: illumine us, enable us, empower us
to live in your Wisdom, your Torah, your Way.

The life of faith is not an invention of our own. Rather, we are invented by the Creator, invented by Love. There is a pattern that preexists us, a pattern born of divine love and woven into the structure of the universe. Sophia (wisdom), Torah (teaching), and Tao (principle) are ancient words for this pattern. 

Holy Wisdom is like a dance. If we are attentive to the music, and surrender ourselves to its rhythms, we will be caught up in the divine choreography. It is what we were made for. If we fight the pattern, we get out of step, and our bodies, our souls, and our societies become awkward and clumsy. 

But do not be discouraged. Sophia is a patient and gentle teacher. Call upon her, and she will guide your feet into the way of peace. 

Blessed are those who walk in the Way (Camino de Santiago, May 2014).

The Virgin of Guadalupe

The welcoming Virgin above the portal of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles (sculpture by Robert Graham).

She is reaching out her arms tonight;
Lord, my poverty is real:
I pray roses shall rain down again
from Guadalupe on her hill.

Who am I to doubt these mysteries,
cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your pilgrims here,
but I am most in need of hope.

 –– Tom Russell, “Guadalupe”

 

We entered the old adobe mission by starlight, hours before dawn. The church was packed with countless worshippers, celebrating mass for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. After the final blessing, we all kept our places, anticipating the mystery play to come––an Advent tradition performed by El Teatro Campesino, an acting troupe whose roots go back to the fields of central California. Founded by Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”) in the 1960s, they performed guerilla theater during protests by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and over the years they have continued to develop community-based theater. Now, in the 18th-century church of San Juan Bautista, they were about to perform La Virgen del Tepeyac.

It began with a thunder of drums. Dozens of players in Aztec regalia danced up the aisle, casting huge shadows on the walls of the nave. But their celebration would soon give way to a darker theme: the subjugation of Mexico’s indigenous people by Spanish conquistadores and friars. Aztec costumes were replaced by peasant garb, Franciscan robes and Spanish armor, and the native people were baptized into a new faith––submitting to the grievous inequities of the culture that imposed it. As the play proceeded, the audience took the side of the oppressed, and waited anxiously for God to do the same.

Countless millions throughout the Americas know what happened next. In December of 1531, on a barren hill in a place called Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec Christian convert. Speaking in his native language, she told him to deliver a message to the bishop: He must build a church not for the rich and powerful, but for the poor and the oppressed.

Juan Diego managed to get an audience with the prelate, but it did not go well. The message was absurd, and the messenger even more so. Would God choose a lowly peasant for divine revelation? Mary’s humble ambassador was quickly shown the exit. Nevertheless, spurred on by more visitations from the Virgin, Juan Diego pressed the message entrusted to him. Exasperated, the bishop demanded a miraculous proof, thinking that would end the matter.

In her final appearance, Mary told Juan Diego to return to that hill one more time. When he reached the summit, he found the barren ground covered with roses––in December! He gathered as many as his cloak could hold, and took them to the episcopal palace. When he poured the roses out at the feet of the astonished bishop, the Virgin’s image was revealed, imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak.

The roses and the image were the stuff of miracles, but even more miraculous was the dignity accorded Juan Diego and all the indigenous poor by the Queen of Heaven. The story quickly spread, and the Virgin of Guadalupe became the patron saint of the Americas. The famous image of the brown-skinned mother of Jesus has become a ubiquitous sign of the God who raises up the poor and lowly, who works miracles in unexpected places.

On this feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so many people in the Americas continue to suffer from the horrific cruelties of ruthless oppressors and unjust systems. Tragically, the United States government, polluted by white nationalism, has become one of the more notorious offenders. Juan Diego’s successors once again sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Let us pray that Guadalupe’s roses may rain down again upon the barren hills of a heartless world.

I saw El Teatro Campesino’s play twenty years ago, but its conclusion offered an image of grace which has never left me. When the play was over, the whole cast processed down the aisle, singing together as they walked. Actors who had played the oppressors went arm in arm with those who had played the peasants. The people who had been on opposite sides––the lions and lambs of a tragic history––now shared a joyful song, as if they were marching together into God’s redemptive future.

The great doors of the church swung open, and the light of the rising sun flooded into the dark interior like water through a bursting dam. Just outside, the cast turned and stopped, forming a corridor for the audience to pass through. As we made our way into the brilliance of morning, it seemed like the gate of heaven––all those shining brown faces, blessing us with smiles and singing.

And I thought: This is how history will end. Neither a bang nor a whimper, but a song.

 

Here is one of the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego in El Teatro Campesino’s La Virgen del Tepeyac.