Tonight the Church begins the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. In the Western monastic tradition, the Divine Office for this feast is an extended meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation in ways that Sunday morning worshippers rarely have the opportunity to pray. Ruminating on these special antiphons is the Benedictine way of lectio-meditatio-contemplatio, and I am delighted to be able to share it with readers of Covenant.
What St. Paul writes to the Philippians as Jesus’s great “self-expropriation” (as Hans Urs von Balthasar translates the “empties himself” of Phil. 2:7), Benedictines have been chanting for over a thousand years as “O admirabile commercium” or as Canon Winfred Douglas translated it in The Monastic Diurnal, “O wondrous interchange.” In other words, Jesus is the one and only link between humankind and God. The psalm antiphon emphasizes this by saying
The creator of mankind, taking upon him a living body, deigned to be born of a Virgin: and proceeding forth as man, without seed, has made us partakers of his Divinity.
St. Irenaeus (ca. 130-200) first made the startling observation that “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies V, Preface). St. Athanasius and many other early Church Fathers realized the depth of meaning in birth of Jesus Christ. “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God” (On the Incrnation 54.3).
The second psalm antiphon for the Feast of the Holy Name touches on the mysterious revelatory quality of the Incarnation, which ties the Old and New Testaments together.
When you were born ineffably of a Virgin, then were the Scriptures fulfilled: you came down like the rain into a fleece of wool, to bring salvation to all mankind: we praise you, O our God.
While the antiphon acknowledges the mystery of the virgin birth alluded to in Isaiah 7:14, the fascinating metaphor pointing to the Incarnation here is in the prayer of Gideon in Judges 6:36-40. On the surface it seems a most distrustful way of conversing with God our Father. However, thinking like an Israelite who appreciates that the only moisture in the desert is the dew brought from the Mediterranean Sea by the night’s west wind, there is more here than meets the eye. The Church Fathers analogically saw this dew as the saturating grace of God and the fleece that gathered it as Mary, the source of the Lamb of God’s human nature. So with those symbolic ideas, we have a lovely meditation on the mysterious and gentle ways of grace through Mary’s fiat and beyond.
The third antiphon is a meditation on the mystery of Mary’s perpetual virginity as understood by the Greek Church Fathers. Here are the words of our Benedictine antiphon, which can be seen even in the 10th-century Hartker Antiphonale.
In the bush that Moses saw unconsumed, we acknowledge the preservation of your glorious virginity: holy Mother of God, intercede for your children.
In contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 AD) in his treatise The Life of Moses is believed to be the first of the Fathers to make the analogical case for the Virgin Mary in this way:
And if the flame by which the soul of the prophet was illuminated was kindled from a thorny bush, even this fact will not be useless for our inquiry. For if truth is God and truth is light — the Gospel testifies by these sublime and divine names to the God who made himself visible to us in the flesh — such guidance of virtue leads us to know that light which has reached down even to human nature. Lest one think that the radiance did not come from a material substance, this light did not shine from some luminary among the stars but came from an earthly bush and surpassed the heavenly luminaries in brilliance.
From this we learn also the mystery of the Virgin: The light of divinity which through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her virginity was not withered by giving birth.
The issue of clarifying the mystery of Mary’s virginity is eclipsed by our undivided focus upon the birth of Jesus, the mystery of the Incarnation of God. It is the light of Christ shining through the prism of human nature that is meant to blind our mortal sight.
The antiphons on the Benedictus of the morning office and the Magnificat of Second Vespers are the climactic Chalcedonian definition of the Incarnation.
A great and wondrous mystery is made known to us this day; a new thing is wrought in both natures: God is made man; that which was, remained, and that which was not, he assumed; suffering no confusion, nor yet division.
Great is the mystery of the inheritance: the womb of her that knew not man has become the temple of the Godhead: by taking flesh of her, he was no way defiled: all the nations shall gather, saying glory be to you, O Lord.
The denial of defilement by the Lord’s taking of flesh shows its Augustinian roots, countering the Manichean heresy that considered all bodily manifestation inferior to the spiritual realm. Clearly God so loved the world — his creation — that he gave his only-begotten Son that everyone believing in him may not perish (John 3:16 my translation).
It is time now to put the liturgia and lectio books away, and turn to our own meditatio and contemplation. Pray that God will so honor and humble us with his Word in the silence. After forty years of singing the Divine Office, the words of the Magnificat antiphon for the first Sunday of Christmas sing themselves inside my head as I pray for deeper understanding of the Incarnation:
While all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, your Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of your royal throne, alleluia!
In a life of prayer we begin with our senses, but the time comes when they will fail us. What we see is illusion, what we hear a muffled bounced echo; what we smell and taste is blunted by tobacco smoke and too many jalapeno peppers; what we touch cannot be felt beneath calloused hands and neuropathic fingers! We begin our journey in praise of God following others’ invitation, but night comes when the world is silent, and we mature by turning inside our heart and look to the one who calls. Pondering words in our heart like Mary reaches into theological mysterium, praying for relationship with Trinitarian richness. Erich Przywara calls the outside limits of such metaphysical philosophy “a darkening night” and the limits of theological metaphysics “super-luminous darkness.” There, “in the ‘Word (of God)’ the ‘(Word) of God’ is revealed: the depth of his invisibility in the depth of his visibility.” The placement of the parentheses is important to understanding Przywara’s point about interchangeability, as well as being purposely abstruse. It is a perplexing puzzle for us who have not had Saul of Tarsus’s blinding experience of the Light of Christ.
Yet sinking our souls into the liturgical round of biblical imagery in contemplatio does transpose the mystery of our redemption into life-giving joy where earthly senses no longer reign supreme. Rest now in the desert, awaiting the dew of grace in the morning. Rejoice now in the season of darkness, as the days begin once more to lengthen, knowing that our redemption is drawing ever closer to Paschal victory. The Incarnation is our door to holiness and the eternal joy of the morning.
 Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), tr. John R Betz and David Bentley Hart, 182.