O come, Emmanuel

The first of the O Antiphons, on the Magnificat in Vespers, telegraphs, as it were, the approach of the Nativity of Our Lord. We have entered the last week of Advent. In each of seven successive evenings, the promise of the Messiah is echoed in phrases of the Old Testament, succinct and discrete. It is a string of Titles in anticipation of our Unknown God: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel. (“O Wisdom,” “O Lord,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” “O Dayspring,” “O King of Nations,” “O God-With-Us.”)

In a different, ferial order they are also, as it were, reprised in the antiphons of Lauds (by seeming convergence of two very ancient traditions), i.e. according to the weekday. Too, there are the (also ancient) antiphons on the Benedictus; and the whole series, or series of series of prayers in Advent, signalling approach, interplays within the rich polyphonic dance of the ages, rendered so deeply harmonious within the continuous liturgical traditions before they were smashed by the Novus Ordo. Yet like old stone or stained glass, where the record is kept, they are possible to restore and then re-animate.

One may, sometimes one must, meditate upon the meaning of the sung phrases, and of their relations, in time out of mind.

They are not cryptic, however. There is no scheme that will ever be found to explain how the phrases fell out, or fall out within their “inevitable” places. There are extraordinary poetic relations, different in kind from that of some tight numerical formula, because operating at once in all dimensions. These are simply as they are.

We are too easily tempted to ask the wrong “Why?” — to ask useless questions about what lies entirely beyond our understanding. As the Scripture, the Liturgy is not the work of one human author. Nor is the working of the Holy Spirit some narrowly sequential thing, laid out as a course of legislation in response to our own “news events.” Things happen and we do not know how they happen. Only in moments, simultaneously in and out of time, and by that same mysterious Action, are we apprised: “Look and you will see.”

To our modern minds, this is inadmissable. We do not trust what we cannot manipulate, and try to reach “inside the machine” to re-order things to our own liking. We lack Faith; which requires humility.

We have destroyed so much, that our task now becomes an unimaginable Restoration of what we have destroyed. That is anyway one view of our task, while still inhabiting this world: to restore, and restore, as the Enemy smashes, and smashes. And by this “Enemy” I mean to expose the enemy in ourselves, which Christ came to exorcise.

In the course of this struggle — of our better angels against our worse — there is a cleansing that transcends time; and all things are made new in the light of Resurrection. Christ to us is returning, and returning, as in the yearly cycle of the Mass, through the few years accorded to each of us. In contrition we return there, and in returning, rediscover a joy that is unfailing.

The monastic orders — in which the antiphons are reliably sung in their appointed places through the daily Hours — can never, even in this world, be suppressed. When the monasteries are destroyed at one location, others pop up in other locations, as we may see with our own eyes today at Papa Stronsay and elsewhere. Always, always, even in this world, these monks and canons will be singing, with us, as we may do with them. There, in the heart of our surviving Christendom, restored perhaps on a distant island, old and new become indistinguishable again.

And we are reminded of something of which we need to be constantly reminded: that even in this world is the music of the Eternal, formed in the Heaven and interpreted to us in “the music of the spheres.”

We could, of course, interpret the final week of Advent as the last seven shopping days before Christmas, then Christmas Day as a vast opening of our vacuities, and the stuffing them up with poultry. This is one way to prepare, and in the “Dictatorship of Relativism” that Benedict XVI so economically described, it is as good as, “and therefore better than,” anything else we might be doing.

Or alternatively our preparation might consist of cleaning house and home — of making our souls ready for the arrival of the Christ Child.

I picture it in the latter way — the way of the Crèche — as parents do, and beautifully sometimes, their own blesséd children, knowing that “the baby” will soon arrive. Everything made new, the house washed down, the crib kitted out, and the Love made ready in our souls. There is no analogy too child-like and naïve for the exposition of this Nativity: when God, to the perpetual surprise of our human family, came to us dressed in our own flesh, so infinitely less sophisticated than we are.

The Child of Our Lady, our light and guide through this and all ages.