“O Root of Jesse”: Remaining Grounded in Christ

ImageFrom Vespers, 19 December:

O Root of Jesse, standing

as a sign among the peoples;

before you kings will shut their mouths,

to you the nations will make their prayer:

Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Until now I have simply used the English translation of the O Antiphons found in several editions of the Liturgy of the Hours; however, I much prefer the accuracy and the flow of this translation, especially at the very beginning!  The Latin text begins, “O Radix Jesse” and many English translations have translated this as “Flower of Jesse”.  In this case I favor the more literal “root” because it signals clearly the Mystery being invoked in this prayer.

I have also been introduced recently to the work of Malcolm Guite, a poet, singer-songwriter, professor and member of the clergy at Cambridge.  Here’s his sonnet on this antiphon, for which I am most grateful:

Image

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,

Rose from a root invisible to all.

We knew the virtues once of every weed,

But, severed from the roots of ritual,

We surf the surface of a wide-screen world

And find no virtue in the virtual.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood

Whose heart we once inhabited in love,

Now we have need of you, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.

The point of the ancient antiphon is to identify the coming Messiah as the very root and foundation of creation and covenant.  Our connection to Christ and to the world is not a superficial grafting onto a minor branch of the family tree, but to the very root itself.  We are grounded, connected and vitally linked to Christ.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns to some particular challenges facing today’s world, echoing yet again the Second Vatican Council’s work in Gaudium et Spes, which provided five “problems of special urgency” which they saw facing the world in 1965.  The pope observes, “In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields” (#52)  He praises developments in health care, education and communication, while reminding us that

the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day. . . . a number of diseases are spreading.  The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation. . . the joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident.  It is a struggle to live. . . . We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.

Clearly what the Pope is concerned about is exclusion and inequality, people who are cut off from society and church.  It is within this context that he makes his now-famous statements about the economy.  However, when looking at his comments as a whole and within their proper context, what he is saying is nothing but traditional catholic social teaching based solidly on the Gospel.  He condemns ANY “economy of exclusion and inequality. How can it be that it is not a news item when as elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock mart loses two points?  This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrwon away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality” (#53).

Much ink and cyberspace has been spilled and filled with analyses of the pope’s subsequent remarks on “trickle-down” theories.  To me, all of that hyperbolic posturing has missed the pope’s point.  Following those sections, the pope writes, “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting [and] al those lives stunted for opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us” (#54).  Any economic system which cuts people off, ignores them, or marginalizes them in any way, needs to be reformed.  This is the moral concern expressed in all of Catholic social teaching, and highlighted at the Second Vatican Council, subsequent official teaching, and now by Pope Francis.  We are to be a people of INCLUSION AND EQUALITY, not exclusion and inequality.

ImageFinancial systems are to serve, not to rule.  The Pope writes of those types of systems which are grounded in a “rejection of ethics and a rejection of God” (#57).  Ethics is derided, he says, because “it is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative.  It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. . . . Ethics [however] leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.”  Once again, the value of the human person in modern economic systems has been a concern even before Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

The pope’s message is quite clear and, when considered as part of our Advent reflection on “O Root of Jesse”, particularly on point.  As Christians we thrive when we are grafted to the Messiah, the source of life.  The whole theme of today’s antiphon is the importance of this life-giving connection in our daily lives, and the importance for all people to be part of our “family tree”.  A focus on economic theory that does not take this underlying principle into account will miss the whole message being proclaimed and, I dare say, the entire message of the Gospel itself!

ADVENT REFLECTION

In my own life and ministry, do I keep the fundamental truth of the “Root of Jesse” in mind?  Do I seek to find ways to include all persons equally in the life of the church?  What structures and attitudes exist which are exclusionary and unequal and need to be changed?  In Guite’s words, do we run the risk of being cut off from the Root and find ourselves blowing, disconnected, across and increasingly arid and lifeless landscape?

Image

“O Adonai”: Freedom through God’s Strength and Mercy

ImageFrom Vespers, 18 December:

O sacred Lord [O Adonai] of Ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

The last reflection ended on the note of freedom, and that’s where we now begin.  Remember that the “O Antiphons” are titles to be associated with the Messiah, the Anointed One; here the Messiah is linked to the Lord of Israel who saved Israel.  The connection continues through the allusion to Moses, calleImaged to lead the people to freedom in God’s name, and to whom God would give the Torah on Sinai.  Although in English we tend to interpret “law” in a sense of “rules”, that is not the way it is understood in Hebrew and the Jewish tradition.  Torah refers to instruction or teaching.  In the covenant relationship with God, these instructions describe the practical nature of how the covenant is to be lived.

With this distinction in mind, let us turn again to Evangelii Gaudium.

Our relationship with God is not about law enforcement but about faithfulness and compassion in the relationship.  Pope Francis (#44) reminds pastors and others who serve in ministry that, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.”

I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.  A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.

The Church, the pope reminds his readers, is always open because God is always open to all.  “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open” (#47).  In addressing the pastoral consequences of this radical openness, the pope tackles a current issue head on:

The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.  But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

The pope concludes the chapter by recalling his frequent exhortation that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”

The God of Israel, Adonai, is the God of all.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In serving others, do we accept the challenge to be missionary, to be constantly reaching out to others rather than sitting in our churches waiting for people to come to us?  Do we act as “arbiters of grace” or “facilitators of grace”?  Are we guilty of treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect” or do we understand Eucharist as Adonai reaching out to all in mercy?  Adonai, the Lord God of Israel, comes to set us all free, and we who serve in any way, are challenged to be instruments of that freedom.

Image

“O Wisdom”: Mission Embodied Within Human Limits

osapientiaThe O Antiphon (O Sapientia, in Latin) for today, 17 December reads as follows:

O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet gentle care.  Come and show your people the way to salvation.

Providentially, the theme of divine Wisdom seems particularly appropriate as we pick up where we left off with the Pope Apostolic Exhortation; namely, with a section entitled: “A Mission embodied within human limits.”  We are a people constantly in seek of Wisdom, both as individuals and as a People of faith.  This is actually the pope’s starting point.  In paragraph #40, the pope refers to the entire Church as a missionary disciple, a disciple who “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.”  It is interesting to think of the entire People of God in this way: as a singular disciple on mission.  Just as I, as an individual Christian disciple, need constantly to grow in understanding, so too does the entire Church.  The Pope reminds those of us who serve in the ministry of theology: “It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help ‘the judgment of the Church to mature.'”  This is a quote taken directly from the Second Vatican Council’s monumental Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, #12).

Without specifying particular examples, the pope continues:

Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of the help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.  For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion.  But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.

This call for a broad and diverse search for wisdom, as we shall see in a moment, once again calls upon the wisdom of the whole Tradition of the Church, with PopeJohnXXIIIathis particular section supported by an extensive reference to St. Thomas Aquinas; shortly, Pope Francis will call to mind the example of St. John XXIII who says essentially the same thing!  Wisdom, in short, is not “monolithic”, nor is it a hoard of theological propositions known in fullness and waiting only to be transmitted verbatim and intact to succeeding generations, cultures and peoples.  The pope writes, in #41: “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. ‘The deposit of the faith is one thing, the way it is expressed is another.'”  That is the voice of St. John XXIII, exhorting the world’s bishops at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.  Pope Francis cautions that when some people “hold fast to a formulation [which] fails to convey its substance,” we can — with every good intention — “sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian.”  He then cites St. John Paul II, who wrote that “the expression of truth can take different forms.  The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning.”

This quest for expressing eternal truth in various ways in order to communicate, not only the words but the meaning of truth, continues  when considering the various customs and practices of the Church, as a missionary disciple.

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated.  Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel.  We should not be afraid to re-examine them. . . .  St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”.  Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as  not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion of form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that should be free.”  This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today.  It ought to be one f the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church her preaching would would enable it to reach everyone.

We have already seen in earlier sections of the document that the pope is committed to helping the Church recover her missionary purpose, and that this mission is not only to reach everyone in a general way, but in very concrete ways which are understandable to all people today, regardless of culture or history or age.  Past ages found beautiful and creative ways of expressing eternal truths in their own day and time; we must not do the same for our own, and not merely try to repeat the brilliant work of the past which may no longer be capable of communicating truth as it once did.

ADVENT REFLECTION

As we move more intently into our final preparations for celebrating the coming of Christ anew into our lives, how well do I express my faith to others in ways that are full of meaning, promise and hope?  What about our parish: What customs do we continue to hold onto which — if we were truly honest with each other — no long seem to be capable of expressing the truth of our relationship with Christ and our responsibility to the world around us.  Honestly review our lives as individuals and as parish, and then reflect: Do we unduly “burden” those around us?  Do we have the courage to let go and to let God inspire us with Divine Wisdom in finding new ways to proclaim the Christ to the world. For those of us who serve as deacons, do we continue to grow, not only as disciples, but in our ministerial competence?  Are we open to new ideas, even when those ideas may be challenging to our former ways of thought?   “O Wisdom” is a title given to Christ today; may our own relationship with Wisdom give us the freedom and courage to find new ways of sharing God’s truth.

 Gaudete002

The Pope’s Exhortation and the “O” Antiphons: Final Advent Reflections

ExhortationWe haven’t looked at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium since December 4 and here we are in the final week before Christmas.  I thought this might be a good time, as we have entered into the period of the “O” Antiphons, to reflect on aspects of the Exhortation through the lens of those Antiphons.  Since they started yesterday (December 17), I’m already a day behind!  I’ll try to catch up with two reflections today.

But first, a bit about the “O” Antiphons.  They are the seven daily refrains used with the recitation of the Magnificat at Vespers (Evening Prayer) from December 17-23.  They are very ancient and go back to the earliest years of the Church.

They are called the “O Antiphons” because each begins with the the interjection “O”. Each antiphon is a name of the Messiah (Christ) and they are drawn from the prophecies of Isaiah:o_antiphons_all

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O God of Power)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O God With Us)

If these titles look familiar, you may recognize them as the various stanzas of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, which is based on them. In subsequent posts, I’ll reflect on Evangelii Gaudium in light of each antiphon.

adventcandlesweek3