Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thoughts on Advent

Advent is a beautiful time in the monastery.  Several brothers have remarked to me how beautiful the season is, with its mysterious chants and various traditions.  We have the advantage of not having much contact with the commercial aspect of Christmas at this time of year, and the theme of watching for the Lord's coming accords well with the activities of the monk.

This year, I have been working hard at a translation of the new Antiphonale Monasticum, the 'official' book of the Benedictine liturgy.  The revision of this book called for by Vatican II is just now being completed.  One volume for the office of Vigils is still in the works.  The books are all in Latin, of course, and it is our house custom to use English, thus my task of translation and adaptation of the chant.  It has been quite an effort, but in the end a tremendous privilege to grow in familiarity with the theology of Advent.  In particular, the traditional antiphons for the divine office display a kind of 'virtuoso lectio divina' on the part of the anonymous monks who compiled and composed them over the years (most of these antiphons date back at least to the eleventh century).   Lines from the Old Testament that would pass by our imaginations opened up the mysteries of God for these inspired monks.  Over the next few days, I will share some examples, beginning with this one:

The second antiphon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent reads: Ecce veniet desideratus cunctis gentibus: et replebitur gloria domus Domini, alleluia.  This is more or less a quotation from Haggai 2: 8, with a slight change in speaker, so that the monks can more easily place it on their own lips (originally the speaker is God).  Following the RSV, the translation would read "Lo, the treasures of all nations shall come in, and the house of the Lord will be filled with glory, alleluia."  

The key word here is desideratus.  I can't say why this is exactly, but here the Vulgate follows more closely the Hebrew than the Septuagint Greek in rendering the Hebrew chemddah, "delight," "desire."  Normally, this is understood as a prophecy of 'precious things' or 'treasure' pouring into the temple, and this is corroborated in this same verse of Haggai by references to silver and gold, which are obviously things desired and delightful for those who own them.  

In the context of the Advent liturgy, with its emphasis on the world's longing to be redeemed from the slavery of sin and death, and the theme of the opening of salvation to the Gentiles, this antiphon is now referring to Jesus Christ as the One longed-for by all nations.  This is not easy to capture in English in a way that both gets at this broader meaning and is faithful to the current norms of translation (the lectionary uses 'treasures').  In any case, doing lectio divina in English we would not be likely to see Haggai's prophecy as a prediction of the coming of Christ, but I'm glad that some monk did!  


maria from elmhurst said...

This translation issue reminds me of something that has continued to puzzle me from "Into Great Silence." The Jeremiah 20:7 difference between "O Lord, you have seduced me and I was seduced" and in the German on screen "You have seduced me and I have let myself be seduced." Other translations are "deceived" or "persuaded" or "been tricked" rather than "seduced." Language captures around in any case, I suppose. Today, I was reading this poem written about the Grand Chartreuse by Matthew Arnold:

Thanks for your words.

healthily sanguine said...

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine: would you classify Advent as a penitential season? How are the ways in which you can explain Advent as a time of penance despite the deep joyfulness of the season?


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