The Perfume of Possibility: The Feast of the Assumption as the Olympiad of Christian Hope

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Glorious things are spoken of you, O Mary, who today were exalted above the choirs of Angels into eternal triumph with Christ (Entrance Antiphon, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Elite athletes exist at the edge of the possible and the physically absurd.  Consider for a moment the 30th Olympiad, recently concluded in London.

  • The marathon runner, who pushes his or her body beyond human limitations to complete the 26.2 miles in the same time that it takes to drive a car from South Bend to Chicago.
  • The swimmer, whose powerful legs and lungs, enables her to move through the water in record time, all the while performing with grace.
  • The sprinter, who runs so swiftly, with such ease, that we re-imagine what the human being can do when formed according to such perfection.
  • The gymnast, who defies all laws of gravity, in the vault, the parallel bars, the floor routine.

And as the Olympics end, do not all of us (no matter the lack of our own athletic prowess) in some way expand our imaginations to what we ourselves can do.   While I may not run a two hour marathon, I could train to run a single marathon in under six hours.   I’ll never be Michael Phelps, but I could push myself to my own physical and mental limit.  I’m not Gabby Douglas, but I can at least do a somersault that entertains small children.

The feast of the Assumption is to Christian hope what the Olympics are to the routine of exercise.  Mary, falling asleep in the Lord, is received body and soul into heaven.  She becomes for us the perfume of possibility, an icon of the destiny of the Church herself.  The Preface of the Feast of the Assumption declares:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.  For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people; rightly you would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously brought forth your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.

Mary receives the grace of transfigured life because she bore the Incarnate Son into the world.  From her own body.  For Mary, the Incarnation was not an idea or a theological principle.  It was an event that took place through the particularities of her body, her own narrative, her own history.

  • The Incarnation, for Mary, was the angel’s greeting piercing through the silence of her contemplation of the Word of God.
  • It was the moment in which her cousin Elizabeth proclaimed, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk. 1:43-44).
  • It was the stretch marks, imprinted upon her pregnant body–a permanent, bodily sign of her fiat.  A sign that still remains, even in her bodily assumption.  
  • The Incarnation was the birth of her child in poverty, yet greeted by angels–all the while the Word of God made flesh soaked in the words of love addressed from his mother.  Love itself knew the possibilities of human love through his mother.
  • The Incarnation was the promise of the sword that would pierce her heart, the sorrows of a life lived with God.
  • It was learning that her son was not “hers” alone but the Son of the Father, come to make all of humanity brothers and sisters in Christ.  Do whatever he tells you (Jn. 2:5).
  • For Mary, the Incarnation was standing beneath the cross, as the faithless world rejected the light that had come into the world through her yes, through her faithfulness.  Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother (Jn. 19:27).
  • It was the realization on Easter day that the promises uttered so long ago in Nazareth had come now to fulfillment, that death itself had been conquered, the kingdom of God made manifest.
  • The Incarnation was the ascension of her Son into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in the upper room, leading to the preaching of the Good News through all the world.  He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Lk. 1:52)

So it is only right that the Church sees Mary’s own falling asleep, her dormition, as taken up into the mystery of the Word made flesh.  All her life, Mary had allowed the Word of God to dwell deeply inside of her:  in her contemplation of the Old Testament prophecies, in the angel’s greeting, in the cooing of her infant Son, in his preaching throughout Nazareth, in her stance beneath the cross, in the infant Church, and now at her death.

And this, dear friends, is the hope of all Christians, of all humans (isn’t as Henri de Lubac notes, Catholicism a promise addressed to all human beings?).  Not simply that we will one day be taken body and soul into heaven.  No, that our whole lives will be lived as a mystery infused by the Word of God, echoing it in our words and deeds through all ages.

The feast of the Assumption is thus the Olympiad of Christian hope itself.  It expands our imaginations to what is possible, if we allow ourselves to be taken up into the mystery of Christ.  We come to sniff the perfume of possibility, of what our humanity can become in Christ Jesus (himself the privileged icon of human transformation).  That we are indeed elevated above the angels, not because of any remarkable effort on our own behalf.  Instead, through our humanity, the Word continues to take flesh if only we would let it be done.  If we give ourselves over to the mystery of God’s love, unfolding in time and space, through the life of the Church.  And Mary, as the queen of the saints, prays that her destiny might be ours.  That all the joys and sorrows that are imprinted upon our bodies, our cities, our nations, may not be erased or forgotten but transfigured through the gift of the Holy Spirit in her Son, Jesus.  For in contemplating the grace of life bestowed to the Virgin, we learn to long for that very same fire of love that she received.  May the scent of resurrected light inflame our hearts on this arch-feast of Christian hope.


December 23: O Emmanuel

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Previous posts in this series:
December 22: O Rex Gentium
December 21: O Oriens
December 20: O Clavis David
December 19: O Radix Jesse
December 18: O Adonai
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior,
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humankind became stunningly and at times disastrously aware that we are capable of shaping history and society.   Social structures that were once thought to be the result of the eternal workings of Divine Providence have been exposed as human creations (or perhaps better desecrations).  Our action in history can change these structures; foster anew a sense of radical peace and justice through promotion of the common good and solidarity.  Yet, there is a dark side to our awakening to the possibility that we shape history.   Namely, we may begin to imagine that we alone are the creators of history, that human ingenuity and striving can enact the fullness of justice in the world.  Such an approach eliminates any sense of God acting in history.  On an individual level, we embrace a rough and ready “atheism” (by no means an intellectual atheism), whereby every aspect of our lives unfolds solely according to our desires, our concerns, our interests.  Our career choices, our relationships become a cultivation of the self apart from community. Simultaneously, we develop a society whose only concern is growth for its own sake, unaware of any transcendent good.  In the United States, should we be surprised that Congress has found itself in an impossible gridlock, an inertia made possible through arguments that unfold not according to transcendent principles of truth and goodness, but the constraints of an all too consuming and addictive power?

In some ways, the present social and political reality finds its corollary in eighth century B.C., in the kingdom of Israel, under the reign of Ahaz.  In an attempt to save Israel from destruction, King Ahaz sought to court the king of Assyria.  To enter into a political alliance, one in which there would be an inevitable capitulation to breaking the covenant with the LORD.   For the covenant that Israel made on Mt. Sinai was never simply about following a series of arbitrary laws.   Rather, Israel’s signing of the covenant was an agreement to live their existence entirely oriented toward the transcendent LORD, toward God alone.   Even when Israel begs for a king and receives Saul, the narrative is quite clear:   the nation, even the king, must rely on the LORD alone. The nation cannot surrender itself to the intrigues of power, of fame, and of fortune. The nation cannot ignore the Sabbath because of how it promotes inefficient labor practices, cannot despoil the orphan and the widow to increase profits, cannot enter into treaties with foreign empires to save itself from destruction.  For such sins are an implicit denial that the LORD will act anew in history, in this day.   That all power, all possibility for life, comes from the LORD alone. It is the prophet Isaiah (read with such frequency during this season of Advent), who speaks against Ahaz.   Abraham Heschel, in his classic text The Prophets, writes:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding.   What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes.   The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor.   The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment (83).

It is within this context that the prophet Isaiah announces God’s action in history through the birth of a child.   The prophet writes:

The LORD spoke further to Ahaz:  ‘Ask for a sign from the LORD your God, anywhere down to Sheol or up to the sky’. But Ahaz replied, ‘I will not ask, and I will not test the LORD. ‘Listen, House of David,’ [Isaiah] retorted, ‘is it not enough for you to treat men as helpless that you also treat my God as helpless? Assuredly, my LORD will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel’ (Is 7:7-9).

The birth of the child is remarkable for two reasons.   First, one should note that this birth is by no means ordinary, precisely because the child to be born is to carry out the LORD’s desires for the nations.  The child is a sign of God acting in history, of the refusal of the LORD to let humanity construct an order forgetful of the covenant.  This child, so small, still in utero, will defeat nations precisely in orienting his existence entirely to the LORD.   Second, and relatedly, the name of the child is to be Immanuel, God is with us.  Despite Ahaz’s (and thus the entire nation’s) attempt to construct his own history, the LORD continues to dwell with Israel, the LORD does not forget, does not give up his end of the covenant.  The salvation of Israel remains deeply entrenched in the mind of the LORD.  Something novel, unimaginable will take place:   “But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, A twig shall sprout from his stock.   The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him:  A spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD” (Is 11:1-2).

Thus, when in the final O Antiphon, the Church proclaims that the infant born in Bethlehem, Jesus, is Emmanuel, God with us, we make a remarkable claim.  This child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, is the very sign of God dwelling among us.   This child, so small, so devoid of power, is the creator of the stars of night, the Savior of the world.  God’s definitive action in history is revealed not in pomp and circumstance but in the poverty of an infant, who will give Himself over to the will of the Father, even unto death itself.  The presence of this infant, who will reign upon the wood of the Cross, is a constant sign that we are not the sole creators of history.  In fact, the accomplishments of history are a shadow of this hidden event in Bethlehem, one that transforms what it means to be human, to function as a society.  As Benedict XVI wrote in an editorial for the Financial Times during his Pontificate:

“In Italy, many crib scenes feature the ruins of ancient Roman buildings in the background. This shows that the birth of the child Jesus marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claims went virtually unchallenged. Now there is a new king, who relies not on the force of arms, but on the power of love. He brings hope to all those who, like himself, live on the margins of society. He brings hope to all who are vulnerable to the changing fortunes of a precarious world. From the manger, Christ calls us to live as citizens of his heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that all people of good will can help to build here on earth.”

The Christian, therefore, who adores Emmanuel, who proclaims the O Antiphon on this day, announces the newness of history as it unfolds in Christ.  A history in which human love is transfigured through the self-gift of the Christ, the anointed One, the Messiah who announces the radical reign of divine justice.

As we celebrate the feast of Christmas, we must learn to give up such self-sufficiency, the attempt to seize and control our own lives at all costs, to construct our own political order apart from any transcendent source.   And instead, we must give ourselves over to the logic of love revealed in the poverty of the infant.   We cannot sentimentalize the presence of the birth of Jesus on Christmas day.  For sentimentality ignores the historical magnitude of the birth of Jesus.  At this power, all human power, all attempts to construct our own historical narrative apart from the LORD of all nations, is defeated by the cooing of the Word made flesh.   Come and save us, O Lord our God.


December 22: O Rex Gentium

Leonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D. 

Director, Notre Dame Vision

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Previous posts in this series:
December 21: O Oriens
December 20: O Clavis David
December 19: O Radix Jesse
December 18: O Adonai
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man,
come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

In his Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict recalled St. Augustine, who taught that “[believers] strengthen themselves by believing” (Porta Fidei §7). To mark the Church’s Year of Faith, I asked the Lord to find a blocked area in my own belief so that he might open it as a door to deeper faith. It did not take long for that area of little faith to be shown to me: Eucharistic Adoration.

The first time I experienced Eucharistic Adoration was at World Youth Day (2002) in Toronto. Our group walked into an expansive yet dimly lit hall with an illuminated stage at its center. In time, I found myself kneeling alongside my companions as a resplendently garmented priest processed through the space with a glisteningly radiant monstrance. As he drew near, some around me were overcome with emotion and collapsed to the floor; others wept as they gazed upon the crowned spectacle. I was nervous and more than a little uncomfortable. I wanted to leave.

I never had an urge to go back to adoration. Clearly, it was not for me. I did not want to be overcome, I did not want to weep, and I certainly did not want to feel like I had to. While I did find myself in adoration spaces several times over the next 10 years, it was always as part of a retreat or some other such occurrence—it was never because of my own desire. In truth, I rather avoided adoration, at times even explaining to others that it “just wasn’t part of my spirituality.”

It is not that I did not place my trust in the Eucharist; I just shied away from belief in the devotion of adoring the Blessed Sacrament. I knew, however, that entering into deeper communion in the Eucharistic celebration requires, in part, an ever-deeper contemplation of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. I also knew that the basic posture for faith is always humility, and that the willingness to chance having been wrong in the past unlocks the possibility for growth in the future. I felt drawn to humble myself before the conclusion I had drawn and thus committed to going to Eucharistic Adoration for thirty minutes every week during the Year of Faith. Even if I could not produce stronger belief on my own, I would at least show up.

Once a week, I walked across Notre Dame’s campus to a dedicated adoration chapel to sit silently before a consecrated Host beheld in a gold monstrance and flanked by a half-dozen candles. This quiet little space is remarkably different from that large warehouse in Toronto, except for the similarity of the gold monstrance and the Host contained within. Weekly, I have gone to sit there, mostly without expectation.

When my eyes are opened and I look up, the only thing that catches my attention besides the Blessed Sacrament is a tapestry of John baptizing Jesus—a replica of the artwork hanging in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. This now familiar image was simply there for me for the first two months of my visitations, but a couple weeks ago it either showed me something about this devotion that I did not expect, or else the devotion presented the tapestry to me in a new way. Jesus was kneeling, not John. I began to wonder who was adoring whom.

In Toronto, it seemed all too evident what adoration meant: we were to melt spectacularly into a puddle of emotions and tears before the One held above us. Strangely, though, the Host had been silent and it only moved as it was moved.

In the little adoration chapel, there is no show, no spectacle; there is the silence of the Host resting upon the altar. It is the same silence, I suppose, that was at the center of that activity in Toronto, yet here it is more audible. I did not hear it at first, but seeing Jesus kneeling before John tuned my ears, or else confirmed what I was already hearing.

And what does this silence say?

Well, I first came to sit in silence before this silence because I believed that,

The Lord is God, the mighty God,
the great king over all the gods,
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
and the highest mountains as well.
He made the sea; it belongs to him,
the dry land, too, for it was formed by his hand.

I pray this with the Church every morning (Psalm 95). I have come to believe that this is my God, my King, the cornerstone of life and the joy of my heart, the One who fashioned me from dust. With these words having already become my own in some measure, the silence of the Host could now begin to speak to my heart. The silence has been teaching me again how might works and what power is for this King whom I praise.

Come, then, let us bow down and worship,
bending the knee before the Lord, our maker,
For he is our God and we are his people,
the flock he shepherds.

I have been sitting before the Almighty who has made Himself subject to me—this King who kneels before His subject. The Beloved Son who knelt before John now kneels in silence awaiting my blessing. This is not the suspension of His kingship, but its revelation; it is not the absence of His glory, but its manifestation.

To him, I am more than I supposed myself to be. Yet, I am not dignified in my own right, but precisely because He kneels before me. In this is the wondrous exchange in which “eternal life is promised to us by the humility of the Lord, who bowed himself down to our pride” (Augustine, Confessions 1.9.17). He values us enough to patiently persuade us, rather than swiftly overpower us. He bends down low so that none will be below His love.

And unto us a child was born. (Is 9:6)

This Child did not stand for us to fall at His feet; rather He fell thrice to lift us up from our pride. He did not overcome us with His fullness; rather, He wept with us for the sake of our redemption. He did not appoint himself with fine linens so as to elicit our attention; rather, He allowed himself to be stripped, clinging to nothing save the Spirit He would give to us. The one who came as a child did not uphold Himself in His regal brilliance; rather, He was lifted up in derision, His body battered and bruised.

And this is what I am here to adore: the power that refuses to overwhelm and instead submits Himself to the possibility of my adoration. He adores that possibility and will not take the freedom He has given me to come and gaze back at Him. He waits, silently; for “the Father spoke one Word which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul” (John of the Cross, Maxims on Love).

Here, then, is the King of all the nations. His reign is the measure of all to whom power has been entrusted, of all principalities that have come or will come, of every creature that has been called into existence (Rom 8:38-39): Do you give or do you take? Do you free or do you bind? Do you serve or do you consume? Do you accept or do you refuse? By His silence, the King of the Blessed Sacrament asks these questions.

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo fomasti.

Come, let us adore.

December 21: O Oriens

Megan Shepherd, M.Div.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Vision

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Previous posts in this series:
December 20: O Clavis David
December 19: O Radix Jesse
December 18: O Adonai
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

For five years, my morning commute took me along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago at the crack of dawn.  As I made my way south, the lake stretched out to my left – some mornings calm and still like glass, and other days windswept whitecaps and waves crashing upon the shore. Over the course of the year there were a few precious weeks when I could watch the sun rise over the lake.

Slowly, the sky lightens – the first hints brightening in the sky. I begin to see more clearly the details of things around me, as the all-encompassing darkness fades to a mixture of shadows and light.  The sky begins to reflect a splendor of color and then, the first rays begin to peek over the horizon.

The light now shines freely across the water, bathing the city in its radiant glow as everything takes on a hint of reflected glory. As the sun rises above the surface of the lake, the reflected rays in the water are almost like a path leading me directly towards the light. All too quickly, the sun rises above the horizon and the day begins. The gentle expectant glow fades into the routine of daily life.  Yet I carry with me the memory of hopeful splendor.

On this day we pray O Oriens, O Dayspring, O Radiant Dawn! From the darkness of the shadow of death we yearn for the Light of Christ, Light of the World.

Moving through Advent, the days grow shorter as darkness appears to be overwhelming our world.  Until today – the Winter Solstice, the day with the least amount of sunlight – where we proclaim the dawning of Christ’s light into our lives. From this day forward we look to the light that shines in the darkness,

“…because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high
will visit us, to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).

Each morning we encounter anew the dawning of Christ’s love in our lives.  Jesus’ light, the eternal light, shines forth in our lives at all times, yet is sometimes hidden from our view by the obstacles, attitudes, actions, and circumstances that cast a shadow upon our lives. In praying O Oriens we call for the light to break through like the dawn.

During Advent, in the shortest of days when darkness seems to be winning the battle outside and the shadow of death seems to be creeping into our hearts, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the Light of Life, the Sun of Justice, shines forth.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Is 9:1)

December 20: O Clavis David

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Previous posts in this series:
December 19: O Radix Jesse
December 18: O Adonai
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and
no one shuts; you shut and no one opens.
Come and lead the captives from the prison house,
who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.

As the Key of David, the Messiah will open the gate of heaven that has been shut since the fall of Adam and Eve. In addition, He will open the gate of the prison that has bound humanity since that same time: the prison of sin and death. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Is 22:22).

A key is a symbol of authority: the one who wields it has the power to imprison and to set free, and the One who wields the key to the House of David has an authority and a power that none can impeach. In this antiphon, the Messiah is not the holder of the Key of David, the Messiah is the Key of David. In His very Person, the Messiah is the One who forever opens the door to life and who will, at the end of all things, forever shut the door to death and destruction.

As the Key of David, the Messiah is the great liberator, not only on a universal, eschatological level, but also on a personal level. He is the One who can truly say: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61:1-2a; see also Lk 4:16-21). The Messiah comes to all, but He also comes to each, seeking out every single person imprisoned by doubts, fears, or addictions. The Key of David comes to unlock the prison of the heart, where the soul is held captive, bound by the chains of sin. He comes, fulfilling the words of Isaiah: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you” (Is 35:4).

The Key of David comes – He, the way, the truth, and the life – leading “the captives from the prison house” on the path to beatitude: “A highway will be there, called the holy way; no one unclean may pass over it, nor fools go astray on it. It is for those with a journey to make, and on it the redeemed will walk. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee” (Is 35:8, 9b-10).

December 19: O Radix Jesse

Aimee Shelide, M.A.

Recruitment and Outreach, Echo

Nashville, TN

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Previous posts in this series:
December 18: O Adonai
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

“O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

“Isaiah had prophesied, ‘But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.’ (Is 11:1), and ‘On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious. (Is 11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Mi 5:1).”

December 18: O Adonai

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Previous posts in this series:
December 17: O Sapientia
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

O Lord and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush
and gave him the Law on Sinai:
come, and with an outstretched arm, redeem us.

The Messianic title “Adonai” contains within it an aura of mystery that cannot be easily unpacked. Even the ancient Church had difficulties pinning down its exact meaning; rather than try to translate it into Latin for this particular antiphon, the writers retained the Hebrew word:

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

Most frequently translated as “Lord,” the word “Adonai” was used by the people of Israel as a substitute for the unutterable name of God, revealed to Moses from the burning bush. When the Hebrew people spoke the title “Adonai,” they did so out of reverence for God, for the very name of God, for the One who said to Moses, “I am the God of your father … the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6a). When Moses heard these words, Scripture says, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex 3:6b)

How astonishing it is that the same God from whom Moses hid his face would choose to redeem us by becoming an infant, One on whom shepherds gazed in rapt wonder. How incredible it is that this God – Adonai – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would come to deliver us not from the hands of Pharoah but from our sins, from death itself. How marvelous it is (that is, worthy of marvel and awe) that this same God who spoke from the burning bush and lay wordless in a manger humbled Himself even further, coming to His people under the appearance of bread and wine each and every time the Mass is celebrated.

Yet how often do we speak the titles “Lord” of “God” out of reverence for this work of redemption? I know that I am frequently guilty of using those titles casually, or worse, as expressions of frustration or anger (particularly when driving–I’m sure I’m not alone here). One of the many fruits of the Advent season is that we can regain a sense of profound wonder in contemplating the miracle of the Incarnation. Perhaps we would do well to channel that wonder into a renewed sense of reverence for God, and especially for the name of God.

December 17: O Sapientia

Jessica Mannen Kimmet

Master of Divinity Candidate, University of Notre Dame

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Previous post in this series:
Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

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

Many of my friends will be able to tell you that some of my favorite scriptural passages are from the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. As an aspiring feminist, I love the portrayal of the divine in feminine terms. Even more, though, I love the ardent love for Wisdom evident in the writer’s words:

For in her is a spirit
intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile,
clear, unstained, certain,
Never harmful, loving the good, keen,
unhampered, beneficent, kindly,
Firm, secure, tranquil,
all-powerful, all-seeing,
And pervading all spirits,
though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.
For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion,
and she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.
For she is a breath of the might of God
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nothing defiled can enter into her.
For she is the reflection of eternal light,
the spotless mirror of the power of God,
the image of his goodness. (Wisdom 7: 22b-26)

The writer is gushing over this Wisdom with whom he’s fallen in love, and could clearly go on and on about the beauty he’s found in her. She is portrayed as a teacher, a lover, a leader. She brings light where there is darkness; she co-creates with God; she renews and protects the world.

We find many striking similarities between these words and the descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament. He, too, is teacher, lover, leader, light-bringer, co-creator, renewer, protector… and on and on. The love the Old Testament author had for Wisdom is related to the love the New Testament writers have for Christ. This love is expressed in many of the same terms; Paul’s epistles even refer to Christ as the Wisdom of God (see 1 Cor 1:24, 30). This title, as today’s O Antiphon makes clear, is closely connected to the more-familiar name for Christ as the Word of God. In the person of Christ, the feminine figure of Wisdom from the Old Testament is united with a male human nature. The second person of the Trinity, the One for whose coming we pray during this season, holds together the masculine and feminine that we are often too quick to separate. Christ breaks down our stereotypes, reminding us that God is more unlike than like any of the images or names we give God.

We see this in today’s O Antiphon itself—Wisdom, Christ, governs and cares for creation, strong and tender. The language reminds me of Notre Dame’s Alma Mater, when we sing of Mary “tender, strong, and true” (a mantra I adopted sometime around my sophomore year as a reminder of the kind of woman I wanted to become while under the Dome). In Mary, the Mother of Christ, we see human wisdom embodied; we already see tenderness and strength held together and lived out in a single person. Things that are opposites are no longer held in opposition. It is no wonder that her Son, divine Wisdom incarnate, is also a living reconciliation, and is the One to guide us to the light of salvation.

Naming the Newborn: A Series on the O Antiphons

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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The act of naming is extraordinarily important.  Recent parents prepare for months to find a name for their newborn.   In the moments after birth,  when the parents speak this name to the child they can see face-to-face for the first time, more than an act of denomination occurs.   All of the preparation, all of the joys and fears that mark parenthood, are embodied in this first proclamation of the name.   And the child we could only imagine in utero gazes into our eyes (at least after a week or so) and hears his or her name called.  A name that will very soon embody the history that we have with this child.

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Today, the Church begins to sing the O Antiphons during Vespers.   The precise origin of these antiphons is unknown, although we are aware that they had entered the Roman liturgy by the eighth century.  Further, when viewed as a reverse acrostic, the titles for the Messiah in these antiphons (listed here on Wikipedia) spell out in Latin E.R.O. C.R.A.S. or “Tomorrow, I will come”.   The Latin-rite Church acknowledges the importance of these antiphons in our final preparations for the Christmas season.

But how does the chanting of short antiphons really prepare one for the birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas?   We must return to our initial reflection on the act of naming.   On Christmas night, we celebrate the nativity of Jesus, the enfleshment of the Word, the wonder of the Logos emptying Himself in the cooing of the infant.  We celebrate the light that shines into the darkness, the possibility that through this light, we ourselves might become pregnant with the Word of God.  We celebrate God’s definitive entrance into history, transforming forever what it means to proclaim peace to people of good will.   We celebrate God’s revelation of a name, a name bestowed once in the burning bush in Exodus and now completed in the gift of the child named Jesus.

The O Antiphons thus prepare us to say this name properly on Christmas night; to form our vision so that we can gaze at the Child swaddled in a manger and see the depths of divine love manifested in the humility of the infant.   The Child is Wisdom itself, the Child is our Lord, the Child is the root of Jesse, the key of David, the Dayspring from on high, the King of the nations, Emmanuel–God with us.

In the coming days here at Oblation, we will be providing a small reflection on each of the O Antiphons so that at Christmas, we can see in the infant the Savior of the world; so that on Christmas, Christ comes to be born not simply in the creche, not only in the readings proclaimed, but in the heart of each Christian who sings out:   Hodie Christus natus est.  Today is born Christ, our Savior.  So happy Advent, dear friends.   Keep faithfully the Os in these final days of preparation that we may name Jesus anew on Christmas.

St. Francis and the Environmental Reduction

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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A constant temptation for Christians is the reduction of saints to models held up for the support of various causes.   The complexity of Augustine’s life is reduced to an “example” of conversion.   Ignatius of Loyola is treated as a model of certain forms of Jesuit discernment.   And most recently, Francis of Assisi has become an icon of the environmental movement. StFrancisandCreatures The reduction of St. Francis to the patron saint of the environmental movement is tempting precisely because it seeks to enact a very real good.   The reality of climate change, of humanity’s destruction of the earth, is an issue of social sin that all Christians must face.   As Rowan Williams writes:

in a world where exploitative and aggressive behavior is commonplace, one of the ‘providential’ tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed.   In others, the question is rather how to use the natural order for the sake of human nourishment and security without pillaging its resources and so damaging its inner mechanisms for self-healing or self-correction.   In both, the fundamental requirement is to discern enough of what the processes of nature truly are to be able to engage intelligently with them (Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square, 188).  

We have forgotten the gift of creation, perceiving it as something to be dominated by a human desire run amok. The answer to the environmental problem, as Archbishop Rowan Williams and EmeritusPope Benedict XVI have pointed out, is not simply that we find a way to develop technological solutions that enable us to continue living disordered lives—now devoid of the consequences of our ever-increasing desire for consumption. Instead, as Benedict XVI noted:

The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.   This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.   What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles ‘in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common good are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.’   Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society (Caritas in veritate, no. 51).

Thus, for the Christian, the solution to the environmental problem is related integrally to the capacity for love, for a sense of solidarity with all those who are in the human family.   Without such love, technological solutions will only serve as a temporary salve for an interior violence that will manifest itself in other ways.  Our maltreatment of the environment is intimately related to the injustice we enact against the unborn, the prisoner, the elderly, the immigrant–all those who become objects in our quest for control.   PopeBenedictandRowanWilliams It is here that St. Francis might actually serve as the privileged patron of this renewal of the environment so integral to the Christian vocation of baptismal priesthood.   St. Francis’ love of the created order emerged from his own sense of creation as an expression of that divine gift fully revealed in Jesus Christ.   Take for example, his famous Canticle of the Creatures.  The text is not simply an act of praising the created order for its beauty.   It commences with divine praises, offered to the “Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing.   To You alone, Most High, do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention Your name” (1-2).   The first act of praise is to the Creator, who has bestowed the world as gift beyond gift.   Such an act of praise is a de-stabilizing one, enabling human beings to assume a posture of humility before the Creator.   And this humility, learned as an imitation of Christ, is the heart of Francis’ spirituality:   “In these last days the grace of God our Savior has appeared in his servant Francis to all who are truly humble and lovers of holy poverty.   In him they can venerate God’s superabundant mercy and be taught by his example to utterly reject ungodliness and worldly passions, to live in conformity with Christ and to thirst after blessed hope with unflagging desire” (Bonaventure, The Life of Saint Francis, Prologue.1). FrancisandChrist Thus, the humility of Francis as a Christological virtue capacitates him to perceive all of creation as gift.   The Sun is no longer a mere object present within the world but “the likeness of You, Most High (1.4).”   The radiant beauty of the stars testifies to the splendor of a God who loves the created order enough to offer the gift of the Son.   Even  death itself can become gift if the Christian perceives it as an opportunity to offer oneself up to the Father in love. Francis can love creation aright, perceive even the most minute facet of the world as gift, precisely because he knows that his whole life is a gift from the God who loved us unto the end.   There is a Eucharistic nature to Francis’ entire life, one in which the entire created order is to join in a hymn of thanksgiving to God.   As Bonaventure writes regarding his death, “Larks are birds that love the light and dread the twilight darkness.   But at the hour of the holy man’s passing, although it was twilight and night was to follow, they came in a great flock over the roof of the house and, whirling around for a long time with unusual joy, gave clear and evident testimony of the glory of the saint, who so often had invited them to praise God” (14.6).  Through Christ, Francis returns our humanity to the Father, healing our disorder in the process.   FrancisBirds Thus, Francis indeed loved the created order.   But he learned this love through the practice of Christological humility, of poverty, of seeking to offer his entire self to the Father as an act of love.  Thus, Francis can be an icon of the environmental movement within Christianity as long as one recognizes the cost that comes with following Francis.   It is a cost that requires an embrace of holy poverty, of recognizing one’s own emptiness before the Creator.   One must become holy. If Christianity, and thus Francis, has something to offer the environmental movement, it is the recognition that we cannot renew the world without renewing our own vision of what creation is in the first place.  Creation is gift, and the sins of greed, of hatred, of self-sufficiency, of individualism, of the apotheosis of consumerism–each of these slowly destroy our vision of the world.  Christian life, when lived according to the genius of Francis, can provide such a formation into the humble, self-emptying love, which is at the root the antidote to such sin.   Francis can be the patron of the environmental movement insofar as he is the patron of a Church seeking to renew humanity through the humble poverty of love unto the end.   Holy Francis, pray for us.