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.
These last days before Christmas, I’m just ready to hold sweet baby Jesus in my arms. I’ve longed and ached for him all of Advent and I want to hold his tiny baby body and kiss his soft baby head. And just as the baby-lover in me threatens to take over, leaving me with images of snuggling a baby that have little to do with the majesty of the Incarnation, this antiphon drops by to remind me that he is so much more than just a sweet baby, that this is so much more than just a birth.
There is in Christmas the somber promise of Good Friday. There is in the joy of the Nativity the suffering foretold by the myrrh of the Magi, the anguish of the Innocents slaughtered as the Christ child is spirited away. The wood of the manger is the wood of the Cross, and this child raised by a carpenter will hear daily the echo of the nails that will bind him to his death. The freedom we are promised by the Lord of Israel is given us by the blood of the Lamb.
There’s a reason Christ was born in the dead of night, a reason we celebrate his birth in a time of barren coldness.1 Certainly, we see that his coming brings us into greater light. But I think we also need his coming to be surrounded by quiet and darkness and just a little bit of fear. It would feel wrong to celebrate in July, remembering with cookouts and fireworks our king born to die. In winter, our joy is tempered by the chill. We sing “Joy to the World,” indeed, but also weep for the day, coming too soon, when the world will mourn. The best Christmas carols remind us of the purpose of the Christ child:
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!
Today’s appeal to the God of Exodus carries the weight of wonder, the awe and fear that surrounded any encounter with this Lord of plagues and sacrifices and walls of water. It is this Christ whom we worship, sweet and silent in his mother’s arms. The God made man to save us is the God before whom Moses cowered in fear. The freedom he wins for us is bought at a terrible price.
Do we greet this child with smiles and stockings and move on, pleased to have celebrated family and love? Or do we fall on our knees before the God born to die? Advent calls us not only to prepare for the joy of the incarnation but to repent, to recognize the gravity, the horror of a God who offers himself as a sacrifice in our stead.
In his infancy, he was given myrrh to anoint his beaten body when at last his life came to fruition. Offer him, friends, the myrrh of repentance. Anoint his tiny body, formed so perfectly to suffer so terribly, with the balm of your prayers, your acts of charity, but most especially your sins offered at the foot of his cradle, the foot of his cross. If you haven’t yet been to confession this Advent, humble yourself before the God of Israel who merits all honor yet stoops to kiss your feet. Give him the gift of your wretched, sinful heart and let him return it to you whole and new.
Oh, come, oh, come, great Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
- Unless you’re south of the Equator, in which case, hello!! [↩]