Reflection by Jim Dryden, a parishioner
We’re getting close now. Today’s gospel reading features the human genealogy of Jesus. We’ll get to hear this list again at the early vigil Masses on Christmas Eve, so maybe we should unofficially refer to this part of Advent as “begat week.” The writer of Matthew’s Gospel begins the story of Jesus by tracing his lineage back to King David, and eventually to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Sometimes I wonder why. I mean, what’s the point? Isn’t the message of Jesus much more important than who his great-great-great grandfather may have been? But then when I try to put on my “first century Palestine hat” for a minute, I guess I might have wanted to know something about the genealogy of Jesus. If I had been around in those days, I might have wanted to know something about his background before deciding whether to give credence to his radical message.
If someone suddenly had walked up to me and told me to sell my belongings, leave my family and follow him, I might have asked a couple of questions before accepting that offer. For example, is this person crazy? Does he look shady? Is he a Cubs fan?
I like to think Matthew was trying to give Jesus some credibility by showing that he was from a long line of mostly observant Jews. I say "mostly observant" because we all know how it was that David ended up becoming Solomon’s father. It’s safe to say that several commandments were broken there. Also, with some of the names on that list of begatters, it’s hard to know how observant they might have been. Even very serious Scripture scholars have never heard of some of the people on that list.
My point is that we’ve reached the time in Advent when we’re getting to know a little bit more about where Jesus came from. Perhaps that can give us some clues about who the Christ child will become. And it’s not just the genealogy section of Matthew’s Gospel that provides those clues. For the next week, the daily prayer of the Church, called the Liturgy of the Hours, will feature antiphons sung at Vespers, or Evening Prayer, that provide a different sort of introduction to Jesus.
Cleverly referred to as the “O Antiphons” (because each begins with the word “O”), these short verses introduce us to Jesus not by telling us who his grandparents were but by referring to prophets, patriarchs and other Old Testament figures whose words helped explain who the Messiah would be. The antiphons describe Jesus as Wisdom, Lord, Flower of Jesse’s stem, Key of David, Radiant Dawn, King of all the nations and Emmanuel, which, as you know, means God with us.
In fact, even if you’ve never heard of the “O Antiphons,” chances are the prophesies about Jesus sound familiar because the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is basically the “O Antiphons” set to music.
When I was a kid, I used to think all those “Wisdom” and “Key of David” references were kind of like a “laundry list” of things that Christmas brought to the world.
I guess that was partly correct, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that the whole list described a single person: Jesus.
Just as Matthew’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’s genealogy as a way of telling us something about who Jesus is, the information about the Christ described in the “O Antiphons” also helps us get to know him.
I’ve listed the “O Antiphons” in order below, but I’ll bet if you just hum “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in your head, you’ll realize you already know them. And I believe that if we can spend some time this week meditating on these antiphons, by Christmas we might just know a little bit more about who thatbaby in the manger really is.
Dec. 17: 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.
Dec. 18: 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.
Dec. 19: O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.
Dec. 20: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people to freedom.
Dec. 21: O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow ofdeath.
Dec. 22: 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.
Dec. 23: O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
+In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.