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if it ain't broke, let's bust it

By Diogenes (bio - articles ) | Dec 17, 2008


"I divide my officers into four classes. The man who is clever and industrious is suited to high staff appointments. Use can be made of the man who is stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy is suited to the highest command -- he has the nerve to deal with all situations.  But the man who is stupid and industrious is a danger and must be dismissed immediately." -- General Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord 

Whenever Richard Sklba stumps into the kitchen gripping his theological repair-kit, you shudder.  Because you just know that his attention will fasten on some part of the Catholic tradition in good working order, and that, once he's fixed it, it'll be in pieces all over the linoleum. In this week's Herald of Hope column Milwaukee's millwright of malfeasance takes in hand the wrench of Jewish-Christian dialogue to tune-up the spirituality of Advent. The result? Er, replacement parts are on order. 

It may seem a small point, but we Christians need to examine carefully the hymns and carols which we sing during this sacred season of our Advent. A classic case in point is the popular Advent song, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." What does it mean to sing a plea for God to rescue "captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear"?

If a Jewish friend or colleague were present, what would they think?

The reference may be to the book of Lamentations and to the sorrow of ancient Jewish people over the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, and then by the Romans in the first century, but Israel has been a free state for 60 years.

The carol in question is a 19th century translation of the Latin hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel, which deftly weaves together the "O antiphons" traditionally employed in the octave before Christmas.  Because it's Advent, Christians spiritually assume the posture of Jews before the birth of Christ in waiting for the Messiah, and the Israel in question is understood by everyone, Jews included, to refer to those who fear the Lord and thereby recognize their spiritual bondage to sin. One needn't sift the book of Lamentations for a key; the numerous Old Testament references to God as Redeemer point to the same truth. Why do Jews as well as Christians continue to pray Psalm 137 ("By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept") but for the fact that, in the spiritually pertinent sense, "captive Israel" remains, and remains in need of ransom? The vicissitudes of the "free state" founded in 1948 have no conceivable connection to the hymn. 

Except for purposes of sabotage.  After all, "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is noteworthy precisely for the warmth with which it invites Christians to put on Israelite clothing, as it were, and to pray for the coming of Christ in the same language of yearning that our spiritual forebears used before the Incarnation; it stresses our human continuity, as well as our historical continuity, with Israel.  Respecting our Old Testament legacy, the hymn froths over with quiet good will. 

Can't have that. Look at it this way: the artillerymen of the inter-religious dialogue brigade would be out of a job if, even in this small corner of traditional piety, the pre-Conciliar Church turned out to have it right all along.   So you thought you were giving voice to innocent good will in your Advent hymnody?  Enter Bishop Sklba and -- bingo! You don't any more.

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