Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O Rex Gentium

The penultimate of the Great O Antiphons:

O King of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one: Come and save us all, the creature whom you have fashioned from clay.

…and its metrical paraphrase twin:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

The Magnificat, to which the seven antiphons are attached in their native environment, is one of the most political texts in all of holy scripture. It speaks of the powerful being cast down and the humble being raised up, of the sated being deprived and the hungry being filled. And of the seven antiphons, this one is perhaps the closest match to the canticle in its political overtones.

To the ears of a 21st century American, steeped since childhood in the values of democracy and egalitarianism, any political system that involves a King (“Rex”) is suspect from the get-go. And if that monarch purports to rule over “the nations,” the problem is only compounded. We are fond of peace, but fonder still of liberty, having witnessed the character of peace that is purchased by the acceptance of despotism.

That said, we’ve got some serious problems, and perhaps ought not to be picky about the form in which help arrives, even if it takes the form of a King. We are, in the words of the collect from four Sundays ago, “divided and enslaved by sin.” We experience this division and slavery in every dimension of our lives. We witnessed it last week in the enmity between developed and developing nations at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. We witness it when an estranged mother and father square off in a courtroom over custody of the child whose parents they are. It’s a pervasive fact of our lives. It’s a political problem, and a political problem needs a political solution.

We need to be “freed and brought together.” And in the providence of God, the vehicle of our liberation and reconciliation is the “gracious rule” of Christ our King. Whatever our political conditioning may be, in our heart of hearts, we know this to be true. Indeed, we yearn for it. As many of us sang two days ago, we know Jesus to be the “dear desire of every nation” and the “joy of every longing heart.” (Hymnal 1982, #66) Unlike the iron grip of tyranny that established the Pax Romana in the first century, which established peace by means of rule, Christ establishes his rule by means of peace. Reconciliation is his calling card (“the cornerstone who makes us both one”), which explains why he is the “Desire of nations.”

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

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