O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
The use of the honorific “Lord” has, over the years, become the source of some controversy. Many women and men, with good reason, have suggested that its use reflects the inherent and uncritically appropriated patriarchal traditions of ancient and even more-recent male-dominated power structures that subordinate women to the men who lord over them. There have been mixed responses by black theologians, some of whom see the association with the nineteenth-century American slave holders who were the lords of their manor, while others value the title’s use because, in reference to God or Jesus Christ, the notion subverts the power-structure, abusive association, and priorities of the earthly lord. These are but two of many of the ways the term has come under question. With due respect to those who find the term offensive or problematic, we are nonetheless left with “lord” on this second day of the O Antiphons and we should try our best to see in what ways it might be speaking to us.
In the past I’ve written on this day about imprisonment and what it means to have the lord come and “set us free,” but I’m thinking this year a bit more of the recent tragic events in Newtown, CT, where so many young lives and those of adults were senselessly taken away. I’m thinking about the reflection I offered this weekend in response to that event and recalling what it might mean to talk about God’s “mighty hand.”
If we are to understand God’s mightiness as evocative of a God of all possibilities (as in, I might do this or might do that), then what could it mean for us to consider a lord, for whom “nothing is impossible,” that could set us free?
Perhaps one of the the ways this God of all possibilities sets us free is by undoing our human expectations. This reference to the coming of Christ as adonai, “Lord” as it’s translated from the Hebrew in the Old Testament, refers to the term of respect that the people of Israel would use as a place-holder for the name of God. Because the lord’s name could not be said, “Lord” became the stand-in reference for the God of all possibilities and the God who was, as Exodus reminds us in the account of Moses before the burning bush, the God of our ancestors who cares about God’s people and who is there for us.
The greatest fulfillment of the covenant comes in the form of a complete and utter surprise: a newborn child who is anything but the lord of the manor, the oppressive ruler, the powerful God who had smote the Egyptians. God continues to surprise us by unsettling our expectations.
So what does this God, the coming of adonai as a human being, mean for those who are in need of being set free? Could it be that at times we don’t really know that it is that holds us back? We really don’t understand what is and isn’t important in our lives, such that we become captive to things that we no longer thinkingly realize?
There are indeed those for whom the prayer of this O Antiphon applies in real and concrete ways, for their captivity is of the most identifiable kind. But we are all, in some way, constricted by the confines of expectations, pressures, guilt, fear, self-importance, self-hatred, and so on. Yet, the freedom of a God of all possibilities is offered to us in new and unexpected ways in this particular, divine, mighty hand. The hand of a child. The hand of a God-with-us.
God’s hand is there, extended in invitation to be in relationship and offered to free us from the captivities of our lives. How do we respond to the coming of adonai?