Names mean something. In the ancient world, the cauldron of cultures where Israel took shape, all words were performative: they called into existence what they described. Names and titles defined relationship. One’s true name was a word of immense power, guarded carefully. To entrust another with one’s name was an act of the deepest intimacy because of the vulnerability such a revelation implied.
Tonight we chant the second of the O Antiphons, and we invoke the Messiah by one of God’s most potent names.
For December 18:
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.
Adonai. We translate it Lord in English, and tend to use it casually as a synonym for God. But the actual root means “my Master”—the One to whom I owe total submission and obedience. This is God All-Powerful.
The name is modified with another title, “leader of the House of Israel.” Again we need to look at the root, the Latin Dux, to see that we are not just invoking the chair of a committee. The Roman dux belli was a war leader, the commander of military forces in a whole region of the Empire, his power second only to the emperor’s. It’s where European monarchies got the title Duke, bestowed on the highest rank of nobility below the prince.
When we call on the coming Christ as Adonai and Dux belli, we are calling up immense power, let there be no doubt. He’s God, we’re not. On Sinai and always, he lays down the Law. Butts will be kicked when he comes.
Yet at the same time we are calling on the One who has pledged himself in the closest, most intimate relationship with us—the One who has given us his name, sworn to be our God, and become vulnerable to the worst we can do to him. Over and over and over again.
In that burning bush (Exodus 3:1-17), the Lord spoke to Moses his true name: YHWH. That name is so powerful that Jews never speak it aloud except in prayer. Hebrew is written without vowels, and symbols are added to scrolls of the Torah to guide a cantor’s pronunciation. Traditionally, the consonants of Yahweh are annotated with the vowels of Adonai, to remind the cantor to substitute the title Lord for God’s name. (Christians later misread this, combining the consonants of YHWH with the vowels of Adonai to get the strange jumble Jehovah.)
Tonight when we summon the One who is both all powerful and all ours, we ask him to redeem us with an outstretched arm—to be the war leader who gives his life fighting to spring us from the bondage of death we schlep. Redemption, as those of us who remember Green Stamps or use gift cards know, is the trading of one thing for another. Christ our Redeemer trades himself for our freedom. He is the ransom he pays for us, because God never refuses to negotiate with the terrorism of sin for the sake of the sinners he loves.
The attitude we must summon tonight is one that’s hugely difficult for me, and perhaps for many these days: humility. To beg redemption, we must acknowledge that we are in need of it, instead of insisting, like my stubborn 4-year-old grandson, that “I don’t want help, I GOT this!”
To call upon Christ as Adonai, Master, means to acknowledge our lowliness, our utter dependence, our willingness to submit to something beyond ourselves. To give up our Strange Gods, as Elizabeth Scalia and Pope Francis keep saying, and lean into relationship that frees.
To hear the voice of God’s vulnerability calling to us from the burning bush means allowing ourselves to be drawn offside our carefully laid plans. It means to have the eyes of our hearts open, that we may know the hope to which we are called. It means being awake—the lesson of Advent. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
O Adonai, we dare to ask you—come!