O Rex Gentium

Christ the King

Christ the King, holding a globe to signify his dominion.

O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O Rex Gentium is the sixth of the O Antiphons sung with the Magnificat at Vespers in the days preceding Christmas Eve. Addressing Christ by the title “King of the Gentiles”, or “King of the Nations”, this prayer has deep political and anthropological implications.

So far in this series of O Antiphons, only Radix Jesse has explicitly mentioned Christ in relation to the Gentiles (a collective word for all people who aren’t of the house of Israel). In that antiphon, Christ is the one at whom “the kings shall shut their mouths” and whom “the Gentiles shall seek.” I mentioned in my reflection on that antiphon that there’s a tension and a built-in juxtaposition between the Root of Jesse (a title relating Christ to Israel) and the mention of the Gentiles, because Jews and Gentiles did not mix. But as was revealed in Isaiah’s and others’ prophecy, and confirmed in the New Testament, the true messianic King of Israel would also be the King of kings, that is, the “Emperor” of all nations.

O Rex Gentium highlights that reality. “His empire shall be multiplied, and there shall be no end of peace,” says Isaiah 9:7. But this King of kings was first to be manifested as the King of Israel. Isa 9:7 continues, “… he shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom; to establish it and strengthen it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth and for ever.”

What exactly Isaiah’s vision looks like on the ground is hard to say. For many Jews at the time of Jesus’ birth, the idea was that a great warrior would arise from among the people, lead an army to overthrow the Romans and all other oppressors, and establish a powerful kingdom which would grow into a powerful empire — a world-wide theocracy. The reality that the messiah would be a poor, wandering rabbi who would be executed on a Roman cross was not, however, expected. Even less expected was that Israel’s God, whose presence had abandoned the Temple hundreds of years earlier, would return in the person of that messiah. But the resurrection and ascension of Jesus both vindicated him as messiah and proved his divinity. The power of this message created a Church so strong that it quickly converted thousands and in just three hundred years transformed pagan Rome into Christian Byzantium. Could this ecumenical empire, with its emperors acknowledging the true Kingship of Christ, be what Isaiah prophesied? Or is it an eschatological reality, yet to be realized? Or is it both: the vine established at Pentecost, the Byzantine Empire as a small mid-winter bloom, and the full flowering coming at the end of the age?

Whatever it looks like for Christ to be the King of the Gentiles who sits on the throne of David, he does it by “making of two one” — the Jews and the Gentiles, those who had been called out to worship the one true God, and those who had worshipped the false pagan gods. This imperial reality of making two into one may also be a broader characteristic of Christ the King. As we see in the antiphon, he who makes two into one is then implored to come and “save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth.” If you recall from Genesis, the making of man out of the dust of the earth involved both dust and “breath.” These two things, the dust, which is of course the matter of this universe, and the breath, which is soul or spirit, are two different kinds of things. In the terms of classical philosophy, the two are so ontologically different that they can’t be collapsed into each other or be explained as originating one from another. They had to be joined. The philosophically committed naturalist gropes in vain for a materialistic way to account for self-reflective consciousness with its stubbornly transcendent values of truth and beauty and goodness. The old platonists and gnostics knew the human spirit was of transcendent origin, but couldn’t reconcile its being joined with the dust of the earth. Judeo-Christian revelation tells us that the two were joined together by God (though they’ve long been at odds with each other because of human sin).

But even more wonderful is that God healed the union of Flesh and Spirit, which had been damaged by the fall, when He joined his divinity with our humanity, when God became Man. In the Incarnation, God accomplished the most profound union — that of the created with the uncreated. This is the greatest ontological gap being spanned, the farthest apart being made closest together. St. Augustine speaks of it elegantly in a sermon on the Nativity:

“He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father. The Word Who is God before all time became flesh at the appointed time. The maker of the sun was made under the sun. He Who fills the world lays in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness.”

The great joining of God and man is begun out of sight in a manger in Bethlehem, but it is finished in the sight of all, lifted up in the air on the hill of Golgotha. There the man leaves his Father in heaven and his mother on earth to be united to his bride, the Church, becoming one flesh with her (Eph 5:31-32). There, the two truly become one. Only God could accomplish this, only he could unite the nation of Israel with the nations of the world, and only he could save us whom he has formed out of the dust of the earth.

Other O Antiphons

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