December 2008


“For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

 

A man, unable to sleep, had taken to walking the streets of his city in the wee hours of the morning. The man was a writer, but lately his muse had left him, and he did not know how he would support his wife and the child soon to be born. His father had been sent to a debtor’s prison for his inability to make good on his obligations. Now the man who haunted these lonely streets was sure he would meet the same fate.

 

On one of these nocturnal excursions, the man happened to see two children running. Why children would be out in the middle of the night, he did not know. His curiosity piqued, he followed the boy and girl to an abandoned building. There was a campfire, and huddled around it were the children, with a man and a woman, presumably their parents. They were all dressed very shabbily, and the man noticed that on the children’s faces were white smudges he could not identify. The writer addressed the father: “What is that on your children’s faces?” “Flour,” the man said. “They work in a bakery.” “Why?” “They must, to make ends meet.” Then the father became hostile and belligerent; apparently the stranger was asking too many questions or was frightening the children. “Please leave us,” he said, picking up a piece of board as a weapon to make sure his request was honored. The writer retreated, and kept walking, even more depressed now because of what he had seen.

 

The man finally made his way back home, and there for days ate and slept little. He still could not write, and fell into a severe depression. His servant was concerned about his welfare, and she told his wife so, but the young woman advised the maid to let her husband be. Yet she too was worried, and kept vigil outside the study door. 

 

The nocturnal walks continued, and one happened to take the man to a workhouse, apparently a laundry. He looked in the window and saw young children toiling with great bundles of sheets and other linens. The man stayed on the spot until the place closed, and the children began to file out to what homes they had. The writer stopped one boy, and asked: “Tell me, boy, for whom do you work?” The child saw the fine clothes the man wore and knew him then to be upper-class. So he replied: “Why, for people like you, sir.”

 

At that moment, the man’s mental map of the world changed. He saw himself no longer as someone in danger of losing everything, but as a writer again, a man gripped by a passion to tell the story of what he had seen, what was going on in his society, and how even children were made to toil so their families might not starve. And he would make the story available to all, whatever their income.

 

The man went home, and wrote, and wrote. For the first time in days, he laughed, he ate, he slept. When finally her husband was resting, the young wife came quietly into the study and picked up the manuscript of the work just completed. On the title page she saw “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.

 

What made the difference for Dickens? Was it not the reclamation of his dream, his passion, his center, his mission? When he paid attention to what lay at the heart of his being, everything else fell into place. And his works, whether “A Christmas Carol” or others, have touched and influenced countless lives.

 

Christmas affirms that God came into the world, born of Mary, as a human being and lived among us. He was fully engaged with the world, loving it, giving himself to it and for it. If we want to know the joy of Christmas, the reclamation of our center, our power for living, if we wish to rejoice with Mary in God our Savior, might it just be that it will be found in our own engagement with the world, our entering into the suffering and need of others, seeing the world through new eyes, a world where favor rests on the lowly, the hungry are filled, the proud are scattered and the humble are gathered?

 

That is the challenge of Christmas, a challenge on the other side of which is joy, energy, and self-understanding we may not have not known before. A place where we just may sing our own Magnificat and believe once again that anything is possible.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

 

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(O Sapientia)

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

pervading and permeating all creation,

you order all things with strength and gentleness:

Come now and teach us the way to salvation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Adonai)

O Adonai, Ruler of the house of Israel,

you appeared in the burning bush to Moses

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come with outstretched arm to save us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Radix Jesse)

O Root of Jesse, rising as a sign for all the peoples,

before you earthly rulers will keep silent,

and nations give you honor:

Come quickly to deliver us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Clavis David)

O Key of David, Scepter over the house of Israel,

you open and no one can close,

you close and no one can open:

Come to set free the prisoners

who live in darkness and the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Oriens)

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light,

Sun of justice:

Come, shine on those who live in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Rex Gentium)

O Ruler of the nations, Monarch for whom the people long,

you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity:

Come, save us all,

whom you formed out of clay.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Emmanuel)

 O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver,

desire of the nations and Savior of all:

Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Come, Lord Jesus.

         

            Silence

 

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises,

the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming

and looks forward with longing

to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to

receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever.   Amen.

 

 

Since at least the 8th century CE, the “O Antiphons” have been sung or chanted in liturgy in the Western Church during the Octave before Christmas (December 17-23). They may have been used as far back as the 5th or 6th century, when there is a reference to them in the writings of Boethius, a philosopher and poet. French Benedictines not so long after were reciting the prayers and then giving gifts to each other.

 

Those same monks arranged the antiphons in such a way that they formed an acrostic. Starting with the last title and taking the first letter of each in turn, they formed the Latin phrase ero cras (“tomorrow, I will come”): Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia. Their creative arrangement reminded them of the promise of Jesus’ advent (coming, parousia): “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). 

 

I love this litany! First, for its extreme age. In this time of disposable everything, we need truly ancient traditions that have been developed and shared and valued over the millennia, enriching the lives of countless numbers of believers. In reciting the O Antiphons, we are connected in a deep and enduring way with those who have gone before us.

 

Second, for its imagination. We become so lazy in our address to God and Jesus, preferring only a couple of titles like “Father” or “Lord.” But the Bible is full of wonderful terms that would take our worship and prayer to a new level, if we would but seek them out. The seven words (in Latin) used in the O Antiphons barely scratch the surface of what the Scriptures offer us as a resource for our relationship with our Lord.

 

Third, for its longing and passion. Can’t you feel the ache in these prayers? Surely in these days of economic crisis, unending and fruitless war, genocide, corruption, greed, fear, and on and on, we need the intervention of divine providence that these ancient lines call for. Particularly for those bound in whatever way—by debt, by addiction, by prejudice, by lust for power—these prayers plead for freedom and help. And for us all, in our deathly culture from which we cannot extricate ourselves, there is no other hope for breaking free from the tomb than our God’s swift coming.

 

You readers who worship in a liturgical church that observes Advent and follows the customs of the ages will most likely pray these prayers yourself this Sunday as part of the gathered community. If you do not have that opportunity, I encourage you to use them for personal devotions, ask your pastor to include them next year on the Sunday before Christmas or both.

 

Have a blessed Christmas, and be encouraged by these words “ero cras,” “tomorrow, I will come.”

 

© Tom Cheatham

 

Notes

 

The version of the O Antiphons I use here comes from Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

My source for history is Fr. William Saunders, “What are the ‘O Antiphons’?” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” (Psalm 126:1,2a).

 

ABC Family network recently showed all the Harry Potter movies through Goblet of Fire as part of their “25 Days of Christmas” line-up. (What Harry Potter has to do with Christmas, I don’t know. But I’ll figure that out later….) As I watched Harry and Ron and Hermione use their respective talents to solve puzzles and ultimately battle Voldemort, I noticed how many comic moments in these films I had missed or ignored. Apparently, the pratfalls and silliness will be even more evident in Half-blood Prince, so that even I can’t miss them.

 

Certainly as the storyline becomes ever darker, the body count mounts, and Harry moves toward his ultimate showdown with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, comedy is even more essential. We cannot emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually sustain constant horror, suspense, and sorrow. Somewhere we need a chance to take a breath, relax, and laugh a little, to entertain hope that the heroes (and we ourselves in real life) might just get out of a dire situation after all.

 

Especially in the Roman Catholic and liturgical Protestant churches the upcoming third Sunday of Advent (December 14, “Gaudete Sunday”) provides such comic relief. It invites us to laugh like those whose dreams of homecoming have been fulfilled by the startling action of the God who does great things (Psalm 126). We exchange our garments of sadness for gaudy, festive finery (Isaiah 61:3, 10). We are called to sing with Mary, so that our spirits rejoice in God our Savior (Luke 1:47).

 

And how we need our spirits to be lifted and refreshed! We are in the midst of a global economic crisis. New jobless claims in our nation are at a 26-year high while AIG executives get $4M bonuses. The automakers, once the bastions of American industry, have had to go hat in hand to Congress asking for a bailout, a bid which has now been rejected. Corruption in government has once again reared its ugly head, this time embodied in the governor of Illinois.

 

But even if corporate executives were not greedy and incompetent and government officials not arrogant and unresponsive—in other words, if we had been spared this current crisis—even then we would still be subject to the common maladies of the season. Lonely people would continue to long for companionship at a time when there is so much emphasis put on togetherness. Families would keep squabbling and fighting over anything and everything from the holiday meal to the number of presents under the tree to unmet expectations and failed promises. As in past years, stress would increase exponentially (for reasons, see previous sentence).

 

Advent and Christmas bring us the promise of deliverance. Not merely a temporary reprieve from the sorrow and stress (comic relief), but a permanent solution we might call “karmic” relief. In the coming of Christ at Christmas and the Second Coming we also anticipate in Advent, God breaks the endless cycle of sin and its consequence, the relentless crushing load of hopeless destiny. We hear words of comfort, assuring us that our sin is forgiven and our warfare ended (cf. Isaiah 40:2, KJV). The world is turned upside down, which is to say back to the way God intended, as the proud and strong are scattered, but the humble and poor are lifted up and fed (cf. Luke 1:47-55).

 

As Frederick Buechner once observed, the gospel is comedy (Telling the Truth). It’s a story that makes us laugh like those who dream, and through and beyond the laughter leads us to hope that weathers any crisis.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

 

 

“[T]hose who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:9,10).

 

 “If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse’—my child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood” (Proverbs 1:11-16).

 

A week ago today, on Black Friday, Jdimytai Damour, a temporary worker, was asphyxiated as he was trampled at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY. According to news reports, he was trying to shield a pregnant shopper from the throngs of customers pushing their way in. Apparently, being the first to get a bargain item was worth one dead man to the savages who burst the door hinges at the store. What were they after? A 50-inch HDTV for $798, a vacuum cleaner for $28, a 10.2-megapixel digital camera for $69, and recent DVDs for $9. What’s a human life compared to filling your home with such stuff?

 

A Wal-Mart official, in predictable corporate-speak, called the incident “unfortunate.” No, it wasn’t unfortunate. It was an example of what happens when the perverse greed of a big corporation out to make every possible dollar meets the lust of frustrated crowds trying to get something on the cheap. In short, the perfect storm of human sinfulness. Wal-Mart is as culpable as whoever it was who actually trampled Mr. Damour. The store put him at the front door because of his big size, but gave him no training in crowd control. They apparently did not follow the practices other retailers had used to ensure order and calm1. And, they had scheduled those door-buster deals in the first place, which according to one store worker, “weren’t even that good”2.

 

Black Friday was separated by only one day from the first Sunday of Advent. The contrast could not be more stark, the difference in values they represent more pronounced. Advent is about waiting for a Savior; the Black Friday crowds rushed to do evil. Advent calls us to peace; the crowds practiced violence. Advent invites us to give and reach out; Wal-Mart offered deals designed not to help its customers, but to increase its bottom line. Advent tells us God is with us. Black Friday encourages us to see ourselves not as part of a community companioned by God, but as individuals who must get what they get by pushing others out of the way, even if it kills or hurts them.

 

I heard on a TV news show that the same morning Mr. Damour was being trampled to death, a family joined with others for worship in their Unitarian church in Minnesota. Shunning the crowds at the malls and the big box stores, they sought to express and to teach a different way, a perspective on life that is decidedly counter-cultural. They didn’t need to “fill [their] houses with booty.” Instead, they came out in the dark and cold to say that consuming and getting and having is not all there is to life.

 

There weren’t thousands or even hundreds gathered at that church. But in this case, the majority doesn’t rule; truth does not reside with them. The little group of worshippers, not the rapacious, deadly shoppers at Wal-Mart, teach us what this season is about.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

  

1http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,459844,00.html 

 

 

2http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/nyregion/30walmart.html