By Sister Katherine Doyle

Christmas trees wrapped round in brilliant lights, brightly decorated streets and houses, the sounds and smells of Christmas all herald the joys of the season, the season of God bursting into our world as an infant child.  It’s a mystery that you just can’t hurry if you are to taste its depth and wonder.  Advent invites us to slowly enter into the experience of waiting on God. Its final stage, the octave before Christmas, begins with the O Antiphons, sung by Christians since at least the sixth century. 

The seven antiphons, rooted in titles for God, stir up in us holy memory.  They are brief reminders of God’s salvific acts leading up to the mystery of the Incarnation itself. This is particularly true for its second antiphon: “O Adonai…O Ruler of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him your law: Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!”  Within this short antiphon the relationship of God and God’s people is captured within a relational and memorializing prayer. 

Invoking God as “Adonai, O Ruler” can seem somewhat counter cultural in a time when collaborative authority and non-hierarchical structures are deeply valued, particularly by women. The title “Ruler” is multivalent.  For some, it’s a term of domination even oppression.  It connotes a relationship lacking in the mutuality of respect and caring.  For others, it is tied to an image of benevolent leadership in which the “ruler” exercises compassion, respect and justice in the service of those ruled. It is a relationship of intimacy and love. The scriptural background of the text points to the latter understanding as the context for the antiphon. 

Rooted in the prophetic text of Isaiah, the antiphon acknowledges that God is our all, the one to whom we owe our love, our energies, our very being, reminds us that God is a God of mercy always present with us.  The God who comes with outstretched arm is the one who “will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (Is. 11:4)  The Adonai antiphon is an antiphon of mercy because it calls us to remember the wonderful saving mercies of God.  Referencing both the burning bush and the Sinai Covenant affirms for us that our God feels the pain of those who are suffering and offers liberation to those oppressed. This is the God to whom we belong. 

When Catherine McAuley prayed this antiphon, it must have resonated with the longings of her own heart. Like God, she constantly listened for the cry of those who were poor. For me it echoes the gift of self-surrender found her Suscipe and speaks to us of our call to be mercy for the world. The burning bush reminds us of the fire of God’s compassion as Moses is sent to a suffering people. The burning bushes in our lives do the same, quickening our hearts to act for justice.  The remembrance of Sinai not only affirms our covenant with the Holy One but identifies us as one people, people who are joined together in God. Whether friend or foe, collaborator or adversary, we belong to each other because we are God’s own, and God longs to be in relationship with us not for just a day but always. 

Calling for Adonai to save us has both a poignant and hopeful feel at this time in our world. If God is truly the God that feels the suffering of the oppressed ones, the outcast ones, then we who are the Body of Christ today must be moved to act on their behalf. We must not only grieve the suffering; we must strive to alleviate it. The outstretched arm of redemption is seen in our outstretched arms which are the instruments of God’s mercy. We ask not only for the coming of our Saving God but for the courage to be that channel of healing and justice for all our brothers and sisters.