Thursday, December 24, 2009

The "O"'s have it!

I second Lisa's observation that the Advent/Christmas time is a seasonal pilgrimage. We make the pilgrimage in trips home, visits to family and friends, and we mark the time in visits to churches and holy sites.

We also make the pilgrimage in texts, as we contemplate the appointed readings for the season. The Advent lectionary is my favorite. Words of the prophets register longing and loss, anticipation and hope. They fall like sheer poetry on the ear, partly because of their familiarity but mostly because they rank as some of most lyrical writing in scripture.

As mentioned, we started our pilgrimage to Santiago in Pamplona, staying at a hotel on the tiny Plaza de la Virgin de la O. Although Lisa and I spent miles imagining what that "O" might have stood for, liturgical geographer Dan Johnson pointed us to a website that clarified our confusion: the Virgen de la O referred to the virgin celebrated in the "O" antiphons, a series of readings for seven days immediately preceding Christmas Eve.

I wasn't aware that these "O" antiphons had anything to do with the Virgin Mary. They name Christ in the many and various ways that the prophets anticipate him: as Wisdom from on High, Ruler of Might, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring from on high, Ruler of all nations, and finally, as Emmanuel. You'll recognize these as verses of the ancient Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

There's the O, but where's the Virgin?

That was the question I brought to these readings this year. And lo! reference to the virgin was somewhere in every one of the days' readings. The "O"s begin on December 17th, and this year's reading was the magnificent genealogy from Matthew's gospel, full of long and largely unpronounceable male names -- but interrupted by four women, most of whom were not "good Jewish girls." There's Tamar, who wrestled the justice she was due from her thoughtless father-in-law, Judah. There's Rahab, a Canaanite "prostitute," who nonetheless saved the young nation of the Hebrew peoples. There's "the wife of Uriah," Bathsheba, probably a Hittite like her husband. There's Ruth, the Moabite woman and wife of Boaz. Finally, there's Mary. These women are important breaks in the male lineage: they signal the good news is for all people.

Another of the readings for one of the "O" days comes from the gospel of Matthew, who echoes Isaiah (7:14), "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel" (Matthew 1:18-25). Then, there's the story of the barren wife of Manoah, who had no children -- and suddenly became pregnant with Samson (Judges 13). Other readings during the season of the "O"s tell the story of Elizabeth, a much older, childless woman who becomes pregant with a child who will grow up to be John the Baptist. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, makes appearance in another reading: another woman without any children, who suddenly finds herself pregnant. Mary's song in Luke's gospel, the Magnificat, is only a little less militaristic version of Hannah's song from 1 Samuel 2.

The readings prescribed for these final days before the birth of Christ celebrate unexpected and thoroughly momentous pregnancies that issue in powerful figures to both the Jewish and the Christian faiths.

But most of all these readings celebrate the women who bore them -- perhaps the only time in the church year we cheer them on.


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