Saturday, December 19, 2015

Homily for Christmas Novena, Dec. 18

Homily for the

Christmas Novena
Dec. 18, 2015

“O Sacred Lord”

Provincial House, New Rochelle

On the Christmas novena, see 
3 variants of tonite’s O antiphon are in regular use—2 in the general liturgy and 1 in our novena.

We’ll sing the novena version shortly:  “O Adonai, leader of the house of Israel, to Moses in the flaming bush you appeared and gave him your law on Sinai.  O come and do ransom us in the strength of your arm extended.”

The “official” text of the breviary reads:  “O sacred Lord 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.”

In the traditional text of everyone’s favorite Advent hymn, we sing:  “O come, O come, great Lord of might,/ Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height/ In ancient times didst give the Law/ In cloud and majesty and awe/ O come, O come Emmanuel,/ And ransom captive Israel.”

If those 3 variants weren’t enuf, the Magnificat gives us yet another (p. 276):  “O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flames of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai:  come and redeem us with outstretched arm.”

Of course they’re all translated from the same Latin text, which—having mercy on you—I didn’t look up.

All of these versions have in common an address to the powerful Lord of Israel, and all invoke his past use of his power to redeem his people, begging him to come again and save us.  3 versions refer to the Lord’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush (“O Come, Emmanuel” doesn’t), an appearance intimately linked to God’s freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt thru the instrumentality of Moses.

All the versions refer to the giving of the Law on Sinai.  We probably don’t often think of laws as liberating.  You’ve heard the joke about the Russian, American, and blonde who were discussing space exploration.  The Russian boasted, “We were the first in space.”  The American responded, “We were the first on the moon.”  The blonde said, “So what!  We’re going to be the first on the sun.”  The Russian and the American looked at each other and shook their heads.  “You can’t land on the sun, you idiot!  You’ll burn up,” remarked the Russian.  To which the blonde replied, “We’re not stupid, you know.  We’re going at night.”

Moses with the 10 Commandmends (Jose de Ribera)
Astrophysics and the other laws of the physical universe are liberating when we know and accept their parameters, their limits.  Our acknowledgment of the law of gravity saves us from smashing ourselves to pieces when we go near cliffs, up on roofs, or down the stairs, while our acceptance and use of the laws of aerodynamics allows us to overcome gravity, in a manner of speaking.  The Law given on Sinai likewise attunes us to the universe, the religious or moral universe; it’s liberating when we let that Law remind us of our Creator, his relationship with us, and our relationships with one another.  St. Paul says that “consciousness of sin comes thru the law” (Rom 3:20), i.e., the Law makes us aware of right and wrong—and such awareness is liberating for those intent on pursuing the right.  Failing to acknowledge the moral universe has given us, e.g., 30 million dead in WWII (a commonly accepted estimate—no one can say for sure) and, less dramatically but closer to home, the breakdown of social order that has followed the breakdown of family life.  A story I read the other day[1] comments on a court decision in Utah that requires 2 women to be listed as the parents on the birth certificate of a child born to one of them.  It’s a biological impossibility, of course, that a woman father a child.  The commentary notes that such misleading records—she also references birth certificates more benign in their intent, related to other forms of artificial conception as well as to adoption—deprive a child of a fundamental right by masking who the child really is:  its ancestry, its genetic origins, and so on (how many times has a doctor asked you about your family’s medical history?).  I’d say that adherence to the natural law would be liberating for the child; following a social trend, instead, binds the child in a chain of ignorance.

Our antiphon, our hymn, our prayer is that we be saved now, ransomed or redeemed now, by the Mighty One.  That plea harmonizes with what we pray every evening in Mary’s canticle:  “He has shown the strength of his arm….  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”  Antiphon and Marian hymn note the Lord’s mighty arm as the means of our rescue.  Like ancient Israel in their dealings with the Egyptians and their other enemies, we are too lowly, too feeble, to save ourselves.

Of course, in our case we’re talking about redemption from an unearthly power, from something more nefarious than ignorance of universal laws.  We all know that, in broad terms, we need to be redeemed from our sins.  Presumably we bring such an awareness, with gratitude, to our daily celebration of the Eucharist, when we approach the sacred Lord of Israel who reached out to his people on the slope of Sinai (in the burning bush) and on its summit (thru the Law) and, most decisively, thru his beloved Son.  Presumably we bring that awareness and gratitude to Reconciliation every month or so.

But we might also seek the Mighty Lord’s help in being set free from our less fortunate spiritual or emotional or behavioral qualities:  our impatience, our arrogance, our sloth, our rudeness, our faultfinding, our closemindedness (isn’t one of the banes of community life “we’ve always done it that way”?), a tendency to speak or act without thinking, an insistence on being right, a tendency to dominate a conversation—so many habits, not necessarily sinful (but sometimes, yes), that to some degree enslave us, and at the same time enslave our confreres, e.g., by placing demands on their time or patience, etc.  We need the Mighty One’s help to see ourselves as we are and to work to change what might seem so intractable in us; we need him to lift up the lowly, lift us to more gracious speech and action, and sometimes even to silence.

That may sound more like Lent than Advent; but we await a Savior because we need to be saved.  Come, O Adonai, and do ransom us in the strength of your arm extended!

       [1] Rebecca Taylor, “Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ and the Death of the Birth Certificate,” National Catholic Register, Nov. 1-14, 2015, issue on-line.

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