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Dan Clendenin, Ox and Ass Before Him Bow (2020); Dan Clendenin, Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World: My New Year's Resolutions with Help From the Desert Monastics (2006); and Dan Clendenin, God Our Father (2003).

For Sunday December 31, 2023

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)


Isaiah 61:10–62:3
Psalm 148 
Galatians 4:4–7
Luke 2:22–40

This Week's Essay

                                  Psalm 148:5, 13 "Let them praise the name of the Lord."

This week my brother-in-law started chemotherapy for incurable lung cancer. Within a few houses of us, our neighbors are struggling with a rare genetic disorder, severe autism, and multiple myeloma. I'm sure that you have your own litany of similar suffering.

Two emails from JWJ readers articulated my own Advent Longings. From Michigan, a friend wrote how she had "so many people in my life right now who are hurting, suffering, questioning, disparaging, and on and on. Even those situations seem insignificant when compared with people in other countries experiencing unimaginable evil."

From Africa, a reader whose wife has a terminal illness agreed that "it's good news that God is with us, among us, working, and blessing," but he then asked, in capital letters, "MY QUESTION THOUGH IS HOW, WHEN AND WHERE IS GOD BUSY DOING IT?"

These emails echo the psalmist, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" And Habakkuk, "How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?" And of Jesus's cry of dereliction: "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

I don't have answers to these questions. Nobody does. They have troubled thoughtful people (not just Christians) for millennia. But I take comfort that our Christian tradition encourages us to "live the questions" (Rilke) rather than to ignore them, or dismiss them as inappropriate, or to offer pious certitudes and glib cliches. The Jewish tradition from which we come is famous for badgering God, complaining, and arguing with him.

 O Key of David, c. 1300.
O Key of David, c. 1300.

And so we pray. To pray is to invoke the name of God, as Psalm 148 this week implores all creation to do — "sun, moon, sea monsters, stormy winds, creeping things, and flying birds." In Galatians this week, Paul names God as a tender father, Abba. Or again, one of my favorite prayers appeals to God's character: "Holy God, Heavenly Father, // God infinite, God intimate, // hear our prayers." To pray and invoke God's name is to confess his character, and to confess his character is to depend on his love. 

One Advent tradition that emerged to express our prayers for deliverance are the "Great Antiphons," sometimes called the "O Antiphons." We don't know the exact origins of them, but they were in liturgical use in Rome by the eighth century. In the west, the "standard" seven antiphons were sung or chanted in the Vesper services for the last seven days of Advent.

As we count down this last week of 2023, I offer this thousand-year-old tradition of meditating on the names of Jesus with one Great Antiphon per day.

Each antiphon is a short paraphrase of Biblical passages. They begin with the particle "O," which is deliberately evocative and exclamatory. They then articulate one of the Messianic names for Jesus from the Old Testament. They conclude with a repeated imperative for deliverance, "Come!" As one scholar put it, "They comfort, heighten, calm and focus, but they are also direct and demanding." They are unapologetically impatient. I like to think of the Great Antiphons as our "evocative imperative" — O God, do not delay, come and save us!

O Wisdom (Sapientia)
coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

 O Wisdom, c. 1300.
O Wisdom, c. 1300.

O Lord (Adonai) and Ruler of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush,
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

O Root of Jesse (Radix),
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.

O Key of David (Clavis) and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Morning Star (Oriens),
splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O King of the nations (Rex Gentium), and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

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

 Antiennes O sm
O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse

Finally, in a delightful piece of wordplay that is lost in the translation from Latin to English, the Great Antiphons contain a clever reverse acrostic. The first letters of the seven Messianic titles, proceeding from the last to the first, spell Ero cras (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia)—literally, "I will be there tomorrow."And so our sevenfold plea to God — Come and help us, contains in itself a response from God — I am coming. May it be so.

Happy New Year from Journey with Jesus to our readers around the world!

Weekly Prayer

Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

The Avowal

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
free fall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Dan Clendenin:

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3) St. Gregory Orthodox Church, Washington, DC.

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