O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
“O Adonai” is the second great antiphon attached to the Magnificat (Song of Mary), sung in the monastic evening prayer in the days leading up to Christmas. These short poetic lines have a mindfully expectant tone, addressing Christ by different titles and imploring him to come. Unlike the first antiphon “O Sapientia” which addresses Christ by a cosmic, universal title, O Adonai is a more personal, relational title, related specifically to the house of Israel. I’ll come back to the title itself in a moment, but first I want to point out the context of the title: the Exodus.
This antiphon recalls the whole narrative of the exodus of the Hebrew people, the house of Israel, from the land of Egypt where they dwelt as a class of slaves. It mentions Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, in which he received the call to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. It mentions his receiving of the Law at Sinai, where the people camped after they had escaped pharaoh’s army. It says to “redeem” us (a term which here means to set free from slavery, as the Hebrews were freed from slavery) with an “outstretched arm” (a phrase used throughout the Old Testament to signify God’s power in reference to the Exodus – Ex 6:6, Dt 4:34, 2 Kgs 17:36, Ps 136:12, Jer 32:21). It’s within this context that the title “Adonai” gets its significance.
At the time of the Exodus, the people descended from the “house” or family of Jacob (named Israel) had lived for a long time in the kingdom of Egypt, prospered, and become a large, distinct people group. The scriptural account is that they grew to such a size that they were viewed as a threat to the kingdom, and so they were treated as slaves instead of citizens and eventually deprived of their male children. But even as slaves, they retained some communal identity and perhaps a living memory that they were heirs to a promise that they would be an especially fruitful nation, by whom the whole world would be blessed (Gen 22:18).
At this time, a man named Moses (uniquely placed as a Hebrew connected to the Egyptian royal court) was called by God to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. God identified himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, but when Moses asked him what his name was, God answered him: “I am that I am” (Ehyeh asher Ehyeh in Hebrew). God also told him a name — YHWH — and said “This is my name forever” (Ex 3:15). This mysterious name (with vowels possibly as Yahweh) was long considered by the Jews too sacred to pronounce, and in later manuscripts, including the Greek Septuagint translation, and even in the later specifically Christian Latin Vulgate, instances of the Holy Name — YHWH — are often replaced with the lofty title Adonai, or LORD. Though Adonai doesn’t capture the majesty and mystery of the personal name YHWH, which is probably related to the Hebrew verb hayah (to be, to exist), it does communicate that the intimate revelation of this name to Moses and to the house of Israel indicates a Lordship of God over “his people”, a phrase used countless times in the story of the Exodus alone.
This Lordship was a deeper revelation of God and a closer relationship for the Hebrews than had been the case for their ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the LORD [YHWH]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name, the LORD [YHWH], I did not make myself known to them.” (Ex 6:2-3)
The Hebrews now not only had a God Almighty (Elohim) in their communal history, but a Lord, with a name, to lead them. Thus “Adonai” is more of a title than a name, than the name, but a meaningful title nonetheless. It is Adonai, the Lord, who reveals himself personally, who rescues “his people” from slavery with an outstretched arm, and who gives them a guiding law. And it is Adonai, the ruler of the house of Israel, who would reveal himself in time even more fully — not only in name, but in the flesh — as Jesus Christ.
When these antiphons were composed to Christ, it was no accident that he was addressed as Adonai, the God who spoke to Moses from a burning bush and from a thick cloud on Sinai. There’s a strange habit in modern Christian thinking to associate God in the old testament with the Father exclusively (maybe with some workings of the Holy Spirit), and to assume the Son is introduced to the world only in the new testament. But it’s Jesus himself who interpreted to his disciples in the Scriptures “all the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). All subsequent Christian reflection on the old testament Scriptures has recognized Christ throughout them. Christ is the “one like a Son of Man” in Daniel , the “suffering servant” in Isaiah. He is all throughout the Psalms, beginning in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man.” As we’ll see in future O Antiphons, he is both the root and the fruit of the family tree of Jesse, the true King of whom David is only a type.
He is also the revelation of God throughout the old testament. Just as he revealed the Father in his incarnation (John 14:6-11), all revelation of the Father before the incarnation also came by the Word. This is why Christ is identified as Adonai who spoke to Moses and shook Sinai with his voice. This is why in all icons of Christ the Greek words ὁ ὤν (from the Greek rendering of “I am that I am” – ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν) are written on his cross-shaped halo, to identify him as the one who spoke those words. It’s why Christian reflection has identified the burning bush itself as a type of Mary, who in an even more significant way bore the very presence of God without being consumed and “without corruption”. The Word of God who put on flesh is also the Word of God who spoke to Moses and led the house of Israel out of Egypt.
But Christ the Adonai is not only the Lord of the Hebrews; he is Lord of all. And this is the key to the promises made regarding Abraham’s offspring, that through that offspring “shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen 22:18). Christ is that offspring (Gal 3:16). The house of Israel was set apart from all peoples not merely for their own sake, but for the sake of the world, so that they might prepare the way for the incarnation of God; that their Lord might become everyone’s Lord; that the one true God Almighty who revealed himself to this nation might be revealed to all nations.
This has already begun through the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us. The revelation about the true Adonai has begun to spread, from Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. But until that project is fulfilled and the Lord is finally revealed as he is, and every knee bows to him and every tongue is compelled to confess that he is Adonai, Christians go on inviting him again and again to come into our hearts. We ask him to come and show the strength of his arm like he did in Egypt, and to “redeem” us from the sins and passions to which we’re still enslaved. We ask for the grace to delight in the law of the Lord, the law given at Sinai and summed up in Christ. We ask that we may bear the consuming fire of Christ in our hearts without being destroyed by it (Heb 12:18-29). And in all humility, we remember that to call Christ Adonai means that we are to actually follow him, because as he warns us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”