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Saturday, third week of Advent

December 17, 2005

Blessed Saturday!

Today we begin the Church’s final countdown to Christmas with the “O Antiphons”, a series of seven short prayers begging God to come and save us. No one knows exactly when or where they were written, although we do know they’re over a thousand years old. They originated as antiphons (responses) to be used before and after the Magnificat (Our Lady’s song of praise from Luke 1:46-55), which is prayed by monks, priests and religious during Evening Prayer (Vespers) of the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office). Now they are also used as the Alleluia verses before the Gospel at Mass. Greg Dues, in _Catholic Customs and Traditions_ points out that December 17-23, the days on which we sing the O Antiphons, were the days of the pagan harvest festival, Saturnalia. He suggests that the Church may’ve focused special attention on prayer, penance and preparation for Christmas during those days in order to offset the influence of the pagan excesses. We can certainly use a special focus on prayer and preparation in our own day, when the celebration of Christmas itself has been largely paganized!

I also found this intriguing (from the website http://www.catholicherald.com/saunders/03ws/ws031218.htm, although others referenced the same information):
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According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one — Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia — the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.”
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Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

We begin with Sapientia, Wisdom:

O Wisdom
Who issued from the mouth of the Most High,
Reaching out mightily from end to end,
And ordering all things tenderly
Come to teach us the way of prudence.
(see Isaiah 11:2-3, Isaiah 28:29, Sirach 24:2-3 & Wisdom 8:1.)

A shift in the readings of Advent begins today too. From here on our Gospels will be dealing more directly with the events immediately leading up to Jesus’ birth.

Readings:
Genesis 49:2, 8-10
Psalm 72: 3-4, 7-8, 17 “Justice shall flourish in His time, and fullness of peace forever”
+ Matthew 1:1-17

Today we get a look at Jesus’ human family tree. Matthew traces His ancestry back to Abraham, the first of the great Patriarchs of the Jewish people. The covenant blessing God had promised to Abraham was passed down to his son Isaac, to Isaac’s son Jacob (renamed Israel after he wrestled with the Lord, Genesis 32:25-29), and then to Israel’s son Judah, the fourth son of the unloved Leah (Genesis 29:31-35).

This detail is in itself noteworthy. The blessing of the covenant was usually passed to the firstborn. That’s why Jacob, the youngest, felt the need to trick his brother and his father in order to obtain it (Genesis 25:29-34 & 27:1-39). However, Israel’s (remember, Israel is Jacob’s new name) firstborn, and indeed all of Judah’s older full brothers, had defied their father, thus forfeiting the covenant blessing. Ruben, the firstborn, had violated his father’s bed, going in to lie with Israel’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). Not only was this a sexual sin, it was a grave act of disrespect against his father (note that Absalom lay with his father’s concubines in his attempt to usurp his father’s throne, II Samuel 21-22). Simeon and Levi had treacherously massacred the men of Shechem and then looted the city to avenge their sister’s defilement there. Not only was this a crime against honesty and the sanctity of human life, it was also a violation of Israel’s position as head of the family. He had the responsibility of deciding how to protect his daughter, but Simeon and Levi took matters into their own hands against his wishes (Genesis 34). This isn’t to say that Judah was perfect (you can read about his misdeeds in Genesis 38:6-26), but he did repent, after a fashion, and he didn’t rebel against his father’s authority. Only one who respects authority is truly qualified to bear authority himself. Thus Judah inherited the position of leadership among the tribes of Israel, and with it the promise of the Messiah.

It is of Judah that we read in Genesis 49:8-10. The dying Israel is prophetically blessing his sons: “Judah… the sons of your father shall bow down to you. A lion’s whelp is Judah…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the staff [of leadership] from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs. To him shall be the obedience of nations” (Genesis 49:8-10). Jesus is the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5), He to whom the scepter, the staff belongs. He is obedient to His Father in Heaven (John 5:19), even more completely than Judah was to his father on earth. He is the One to whom “every knee will bend in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

This in itself is looking forward to the end of time, for not every knee bends to the glory of Jesus now, nor does every tongue confess Him as Lord. But there will come a day when the sheep are separated from the goats (Matthew 25:31-33), when the sheep will bend the knee in loving adoration; the goats in abject terror and hatred. The goats will cry out with the devils, “What have we to do with thee, Son of God? Hast thou come to torment us?” (Matthew 8:29), while the great crowd of the just thunder “Alleluia! for the Lord, our God almighty, now reigns!” (Revelation 19:6). Jesus will reign. Whether we find His Kingship tortuous or a cause for great rejoicing is up to us.

May we practise bending the knee in loving adoration now, that His coming will bring us only joy.

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