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Ann Lewin, T S Eliot and Lancelot Andrewes on The Epiphany

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 It is a multi-layered story, as many of these birth narratives are, and three layers in particular draw our attention. First there is the nature of the visitors: Magi, astronomers from further EAst, led by a star to find a newly born king. They are often called Wise Men, but if we think about the nature of wisdom as the Bible describes it, that may not be the most suitable adjective to describe them. They were certainly clever, there is no doubt that they were well-versed in the study of the stars. But perhaps if they had been wiser they would have done a little research into the nature of the King this new-born child would replace….

There is nothing sentimental about our journey to make our offering. T S Eliot wrote memorably about the journey the Magi had ‘A cold coming we had of it‘, he began. He borrowed the words from a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes, one-time Dean of Westminster and Bishop of Chichester and Winchester, on Christmas Day 1622, in the presence of King James I. Andrewes said of the wise men:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and especially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter. Venimus…. ‘we are come’…And these difficulties they overcome, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey, and all for this they came. And came it cheerfully, and quickly, as appeareth by the speed they made. It was but vidimus venimus, with them ‘they saw’ and ‘they came’ no sooner saw but they set out presently…they took all these pains, made all this haste that they might be here to worship Him with all the possible speed they could. Sorry for nothing so much as that they could not be there soon enough, with the very first, to do it even this day, the day of His birth…And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgement against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. With them it was but ‘vidimus venimus‘, with us it would have been but veniemus (we will come) at the most. Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No, but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

Ann Lewin concludes her chapter:
“We are challenged by the Epiphany story to think about how willing we are to set out on the journey of offering ourselves to God.

What are the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh that we have as individuals or groups/churches to offer to God in loving our neighbours?

What obstacles do we have to overcome in order to make our offering?

Come freshly to us now, Lord God,
and as we offer you our lives,
renew in us your gifts….

O Adonai: the Second Antiphon- a miscellany of responses


O Lord and Ruler of the House of Israel

First, the Latin text and the English translation:

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

These antiphons address Christ with seven magnificent Messianic titles, based on the Old Testament prophecies and [attributes] of Christ. The Church recalls the variety of the ills of man before the coming of the Redeemer…Before the coming of God in the flesh, we were ignorant, subject to eternal punishment, slaves of the Devil, shackled with our sinful habits, lost in darkness, exiled from our true country. Hence the ancient antiphons announce Jesus in turn as our Teacher, our Redeemer, our Liberator, our Guide, our Enlightener and our Saviour.

The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, trans. Ryan and Ripperger, 1941

 The antiphons beg God with mounting impatience to come and save His people. The order of the antiphons climb climactically through our history of Redemption…In the first, O Sapientia, we take a backward flight into the recesses of eternity to address Wisdom, the Word of God. In the second, O Adonai, we have leaped from eternity to the time of Moses and the Law of Moses (about 1400 B.C.).

Jeanne Kun comments:

“Adonai” is Hebrew for “my Lord”, and was substituted by devout Jews for the name “Yahweh”, out of reverence.  With this second antiphon we progress from creation to the familiar story of God manifesting himself by name to Moses and giving his law to Israel as their way of life.  We are also reminded of the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage under pharaoh – a foreshadowing of our own redemption from sin.  The image of God’s arm outstretched in power to save his chosen people also brings to mind the later scene of Jesus with his arms outstretched for us on the cross.

The poet and composer, the Revd Malcolm Guite, has written a sequence of sonnets on the antiphons.
O Adonai begins:

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,
Unseeable, you gave yourself away,
The Adonai, the Tetragramaton
Grew by a wayside in the light of day….

Ann Lewin, in her Come Emmanuel:

It was the Exodus that God gave as his reason for giving his people the laws that would guide their lives…God’s relationship with his people was a covenanted relationship, a relationship in which both parties pledged faithfulness to each another, that made demands on the people in return for God’s faithful care.

Our Digital Nun, at iBenedictines blog, concludes our piece with:

…Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush makes one tremble. God’s holiness flaming out from an insignificant shrub is a thought to strike awe; but the thought of not seeing it, of mistaking his presence, is more terrible still. I suspect many of us would admit that there have been times in our lives when God was there but we didn’t register his presence. We were too caught up in other things. We ignored the hand he stretched out to us….


O Sapientia: the First Antiphon: Ann Lewin


 Some of the words we are given to ponder during [Advent] are found in the Advent Antiphons, meditations on verses of Scripture that were sung in turn from at least the fourth century, before and after the Magnificat at Vespers, the monastic equivalent of Evensong, on the seven days leading up to Christmas. By the twelfth century, five of these had been put together into a Latin hymn, translated into English in the nineteenth century by John Mason Neale. They form the basis of the hymn O come, O come Emmanuel. The first of the Antiphons survives by name in modern Lectionaries, where 17 December is named O Sapientia.

O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

O Wisdom, coming forth from the Most High, filling of creation and reigning to the ends of the earth: come and teach us the way of truth.

Isaiah 1 1:2-3; Wisdom 7:24-28; Ecclesiasticus 1:1-20

…Wisdom isn’t a commodity, a package we can get off the shelf. It is described as a way, a disposition. It is also personified as a companion who influences us so profoundly that we become wise in our turn…Like many of God’s gifts, we receive it in part from other human beings. Some wisdom we inherit from the past, timeless wisdom that has stood the test, always true…

Other kinds of wisdom we realise have to be challenged. We sometimes talk about ‘received wisdom’, and when we do, we are usually expressing some doubt about what seemed to be true at one time, but doesn’t sit easily with our understanding now. For example, it used to be thought perfectly acceptable to enslave people. But then came people who challenged that concept, and established a wiser approach to treating people from other cultures and races.

We need to draw on the wisdom of previous generations, and apply it in the light of contemporary understanding of what it is to be human. That is what Jesus kept on doing. The Gospels record him telling stories that illustrated people’s lives and relationships. Sometimes he said,’Go and do the same’ (Luke 10.25-37). At other times, he said ‘Think, see what conclusions you draw’ (Matthew 6:26-34). At yet other times he said ‘that old idea won’t do. You have heard it said ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’, but I say to you ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:17-48).

…Biblical wisdom revolves around the idea that we need to live our lives in awareness of God, accountable to God, in a context of reverent worship. That comes about when we decide that our priority is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Jesus did that, and it showed in the way he paid attention to God in prayer and public worship, in the way he treated people with profound respect, and the way he recognised God’s faithful love in sustaining the whole creation.

That is not a bad description of how we too can begin to live in the fear of God, and grow in wisdom, as we live in growing awareness of God, rooting that awareness in prayer, which is the heartbeat of our relationship with God.

This extract is taken from ‘Come Emmanuel: Approaching Advent, living with Christmas‘ by Ann Lewin


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