Wednesday, December 16, 2009


In the Church's traditional cycle of prayer, Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, always includes the great song of Mary known as the Magnificat. This song is preceded and followed by a short verse or "antiphon" that links it to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the Magnificat antiphons are very special. Each begins with the exclamation "O" and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.

These "O Antiphons" were composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together some of the key Old Testament texts and phrases looking forward to our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of Scriptural images; in the Middle Ages the custom grew of ringing the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS. These are understood as the words of Jesus, responding to his people's plea, saying "Tomorrow I will be there."

I have adapted the short reflection on the Scripture readings for each of these days from Homilies for Weekdays, by Don Talafous (Liturgical Press, 2005).

that camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to another,
firmly and gently ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of understanding.

MASS READINGS: Genesis 49:2, 8-10, Matthew 1:1-17

In our personal reading of Scripture we are likely to skip over genealogies and assume there is nothing interesting in them. Matthew's genealogy, however, is very interesting. In this list of names, we see God's grace at work in ways we do not expect. The patriarchs are the first group of people mentioned. Not all of them were noble or saintly. Jacob, for example, stole his father's blessing, cheating his older brother. Israel's kings make up the next group. They reflect the best and the worst of human nature. Some are idolaters, murderers, and adulterers, like King David. Unknown people make up the third group. Yet God is at work among them. (It has often been pointed out, too, that the women in this genealogy have marital histories that include scandal and scorn.)

Jesus has an interesting family tree! It emphasises the work of God's grace in the flow of real history with real people, saints and sinners alike. It encourages us to look for signs of his grace in our lives.


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