Pope Paul VI once remarked that the Church is an “expert in humanity,” and well should she be, having observed and served humanity for two millennia. One of the signs of that “expertise” is that she knows how far to “push” us. With challenges of repentance and conversion for two weeks, she now gives us a bit of a break on this Third Sunday of Advent (but not totally), dubbed “Gaudete Sunday” from the first word of the Introit of the day, taken from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians: Rejoice! Rejoice because the end or goal is in sight; our redemption is near at hand. The purple of mourning is replaced by the rose vestments; flowers appear on the altar, ever so briefly; instrumental music may be heard.
However, all is not yet sweetness and light; John the Baptist still figures in the unfolding of the drama of salvation.
On Jordan’s Bank
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings.
Then cleansed be ev’ry soul from sin;
Make straight the way of God within,
Prepare we in our hearts a home,
Where such a mighty Guest may come.
For Thou art our salvation, Lord,
Our refuge and our sure reward;
Shine forth, and let Thy light restore
Our souls to Heav’nly grace once more.
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee
Whose advent set Thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Spirit evermore.
This hymn is an 1837 translation by the Anglican John Chandler (1806-1876) from the original Latin of Jordanis Oras Prævia by Charles Coffin (1676-1749), first published in the 1736 Paris Breviary. Coffin was Rector of the University of Paris and wrote more than 100 Latin hymns.
The figure of John the Baptist has intrigued people from time immemorial – even Herod was fascinated by him (see Mk 6:20). St. Luke informs us: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (1:80). St. Mark tells us that he began his preaching ministry in the desert, cutting quite an odd figure between his garb and his diet (1:4-8)!
So, whence “in the desert” did he hail? I, along with many other commentators, would argue that “the Baptist” lived with the Essene community at the Dead Sea (whose bottled invaluable manuscripts of biblical and extra-biblical texts were first found in 1946, known universally as “the Dead Sea scrolls.” That community, at Qumran, was perhaps the first gathering of celibates in Judaism to live a quasi-monastic life (married people also lived with them), committed to preparing themselves (and others) for the coming of the Messiah, practicing water baptism and celebrating communal meals in anticipation of the Messiah. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the Baptist’s presence and ministry?
• The River Jordan has a storied place in salvation history. It originates approximately 650 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Hermon in Israel, ending its course at the lowest spot in the world, the Dead Sea, at roughly 1400 feet below sea level. Along its course, the Jordan feeds two lakes: the Hula (now almost completely drained) and the Sea of Galilee. In its course from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, the Jordan travels a winding 150 miles, covering 65 miles in a straight line.
Many references to the Jordan River appear in both the Old and New Testaments; the Jordan is mentioned about 175 times in the Old Testament and about 15 times in the New Testament. The word ‘Jordan’ comes from the Hebrew word “Yarden,”’ meaning “descender,” appropriate for a river that courses from the heights of Mount Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea.
• Although the Baptist’s message is a call to repentance, he is acclaimed as the “herald” of the Gospel, the good news or glad tidings of salvation. That message stands in a long line of prophets calling the Chosen People to shuv, that is, to return, restore, turn back. The Greek of the New Testament translates this as metanoia, a change of mind and heart, leading to a 180-degree turn-around. The prophetic call is absolute and demands an absolute response – no half-hearted efforts are acceptable, which is why the hymn more than suggests that to have Christ as a Guest, requires a proper environment: Christ and sin cannot coexist in the same space.
• The penultimate verse underscores the truth that in God alone and in His Christ can we find salvation, refuge, reward. This truth has been obscured in many places over the past half-century, so much so that Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had to remind us all of that essential fact in Dominus Iesus (2000); that document brought a firestorm from many outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church and, sadly, from all too many from within our borders, seemingly forgetful of the scriptural assertion: ““Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
• The hymn begs: “Restore our souls to Heav’nly grace once more.” What is grace? It is nothing less than the life of the Triune God within us, first bestowed on us in Holy Baptism when we were made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). That “divine nature” and life is marred by venial sin or even eradicated by mortal sin. Through metanoia, we are restored to baptismal innocence – one of the holy hopes of Advent.
• We end this sacred song by “reminding” God that Christ’s “advent” has set us free – free from the dual enemy of sin and death. He is able to do this because He is the “true God” of the Nicene Creed, to be equally adored with the Father and Holy Spirit.
Savior of the Nations, Come
Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here Thy home!
Marvel now, O Heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.
Not of flesh and blood the Son,
offspring of the Holy One;
born of Mary ever blest,
God in flesh is manifest.
Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in Heav’n enthroned.
From the Father forth He came
and returneth to the Same,
captive leading death and Hell,
high the song of triumph swell!
Thou, the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?
This hymn has quite a pedigree. Its original Latin version comes from St. Ambrose in the fourth century, Intende, qui regis Israel, based on Psalm 80 (79). It seems that very early on, the first verse fell into desuetude, so that the hymn’s name became Veni, Redemptor Gentium, the first line of the second verse! St. Augustine (spiritual son of Ambrose) alludes to the hymn in one of his sermons (thus providing evidence of its liturgical use already in his time):
Blessed Ambrose has sung of this departure of our giant most briefly and beautifully in the hymn which you sang a little earlier. For speaking about the Lord Christ, he speaks as follows: “His departure from the Father, his return to the Father; his journey down to Hell, his journey back to the seat of God.”1
It seems that its first vernacular translation was in German, done by Martin Luther. The English text was the work of the Episcopal American clergyman, William Reynolds, in the nineteenth century.
• The over-arching theme is well summarized in this excerpt from a sermon, perhaps preached by Augustine’s disciple, Quodvultdeus:
For who would not be terrified, when he hears that God has been born? You hear of Him being born – see, working miracles in His very coming! “The womb of the virgin swells, the gate of chastity remains closed.”
• The universality of salvation is sounded in the very first line, as Christ is acclaimed as “Savior of the nations,” that is, the Gentiles. Very frequently, the Chosen People had to be reminded by the prophets that their “chosenness” was not to be understood in an exclusivistic fashion; rather, they were chosen to bring the Gentiles into the same loving relationship with the one true God as they had. The Jesus we meet in the Gospel according to St. Luke echoes that notion repeatedly (see, for example, Lk 4:29).
• The Incarnate Lord is urged to make His dwelling among us (“pitching His tent” among us, as John 1:14 would have it), even as we acknowledge the marvelousness of it all. This is the height of divine condescension, to be sure, however, it is also a special conception-birth inasmuch as it is virginal.
• Much of this work is clearly inspired by the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel as we hear that this birth is “not by human flesh and blood”; that Christ is “by all the world disowned,” starting from His rejection by a large portion of His own people; that the Word became flesh.
• The “wondrous birth” produces a “wondrous Child.” Repeatedly, we are reminded that this birth left the “Virgin undefiled.”
• This Lord comes from the Father and returns there. His descent and tarrying among us is done in view of His ascending and taking us back in His company. As a matter of fact, one familiar with the ways of the Roman emperors will immediately think of a “pompa magnifica” or triumphal march of a conquering hero.
• The uniqueness of Jesus is highlighted as He is called “the Father’s only Son.” The Son’s victory over sin and death brings light – another theme touched upon in John’s Prologue. While all this is cause for rejoicing, a note of caution is raised: Sin can “o’ercloud this light.” And so, the final petition that our faith be ever “bright,” keeping us on the right path toward the light – the One whom the Nicene Creed hails as “Light from Light.”
The Advent of Our King
The advent of our King
our prayers must now employ,
and we must hymns of welcome sing
in strains of holy joy.
The everlasting Son
incarnate deigns to be;
Himself a servant’s form puts on
to set His servants free.
Daughter of Zion, rise
to meet thy lowly King,
nor let thy faithless heart despise
the peace He comes to bring.
As Judge, on clouds of light,
He soon will come again,
and all His scattered saints unite
with Him in Heaven to reign.
Before the dawning day
let sin’s dark deeds be gone;
the old man all be put away,
the new man all put on.
This, too, was originally composed in Latin by Charles Coffin (1676-1749) and translated by the Scottish Catholic, Robert Campbell (1814-1868).
• The hymn kicks off with an encouragement to raise our voices in “holy joy,” very appropriate for Gaudete Sunday. But what is “joy”? Let’s start by saying what it is not: It is not jocularity or hilarity. It is the ability to rest calm and undisturbed amid the vicissitudes of life, knowing that one has been saved and delivered from the grasp of the Evil One and now dwell in God’s presence through sanctifying grace.
• When the King comes, His subjects need to be ready to welcome Him with worthy hymns; hymns become worthy when the words we sing are matched by the deeds we perform and the lives we lead.
• The second verse is a poetic rendering of the famous kenosis (self-emptying) passage of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians (2:1-11). Simply put, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God from all eternity, enters our sphere of existence, becoming a slave, precisely to set us free – free from all that would draw us away from Him and true happiness.
• Next we address the “Daughter of Zion.” Who is she? “Zion” is often a substitute for “Jerusalem” or “Israel,” in the sense of the “People of God” – a “corporate” person. Which is the case here; in fact, a good interpretive guide for this verse is the First Reading for this Sunday, taken from the Prophet Zephaniah (3:14-18a) as the Chosen People are urged to “rejoice” (here’s that word again). Why? Because their King is in their midst and has taken away the judgment against them; in other words, their sins have been forgiven.
• The hymnist goes a step farther in expressing the hope that residual faithlessness would not impede the peace (shalom) of the Messiah-King. What is shalom? As Gaudium et Spes teaches, “peace is not merely the absence of war” (n. 78). In the biblical view of things, peace – God’s peace – is wholeness, harmony, right relationships between the human person and God, and between persons; the peace of the Kingdom reverses the various alienations brought on by the sin of our First Parents as the man and woman turned on each other, hid from God, and experienced estrangement even from nature. For a beautiful vision of peace, read the second chapter of the Prophet Isaiah.
• Once more, we are brought face to face with Christ the Judge and presented with the gathering of all the holy ones to reign with Him for all eternity. In preparation for that Day, sin must be banished, with the “old man” replaced by the “new man”; this theme is hit upon by St. Paul in many places (see, for example, Col 3:10; Eph 4:24). That first happened for us on the day of our baptism, but our personal sins obscure that “new man,” so that repentance and conversion must be the daily meat-and-potatoes of the Christian life. Such a stance is not only a fitting preparation for Judgment Day; it also provides a fitting welcome for the Infant King on Christmas Day.
Reflecting on today’s Gospel, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman penned this meditation:
The Holy Baptist was separated from the world. He was a Nazarite. He went out from the world, and placed himself over against it, and spoke to it from his vantage ground, and called it to repentance. Then went out all Jerusalem to him into the desert, and he confronted it face to face. But in his teaching he spoke of One who should come to them and speak to them in a far different way. He should not separate Himself from them, He should not display Himself as some higher being, but as their brother, as of their flesh and of their bones, as one among many brethren, as one of the multitude and amidst them; nay, He was among them already. “Medius vestrum stetit, quem vos nescitis”—”there hath stood in the midst of you, whom you know not.”2
And now, our weekly challenge for Catholic school teachers and clergy: What can you glean from Once in Royal David’s City, composed by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), heavily influenced by the Oxford Movement; she was particularly attentive to the use of hymnody as a catechetical tool for children (quite apparent in this hymn).
Anyone who has attended a traditional service of Lessons and Carols has probably been thrilled to hear this hymn lead off the celebration, preferably introduced by a boy soprano!
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.
He came down to earth from Heaven
who is God and Lord of all,
and His shelter was a stable,
and His cradle was a stall;
with the poor and mean and lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
through His own redeeming love,
for that Child, so dear and gentle,
is our Lord in Heav’n above,
and He leads His children on
to the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor, lowly stable
with the oxen standing by
we shall see Him, but in Heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high.
Then like stars His children crowned,
all in white, His praise will sound.
1Sermon 372, On the Incarnation.
2God with Us, The Familiarity of Jesus. Meditations and Devotions, p. 358.
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