Sunday, December 18, 2005

Seven more days: O Adonai

Come O Adonai!

December 18: Seven more days: O Adonai (O Lord of Israel)

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in braccio extento.

(translation from Fr. Britt)

O Adonai, and Leader of the house of Israel, who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest to him the Law on Sinai: COME and redeem us by Thy outstretched arm.

(another version)

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 symbol is the tablets of the Law, kept within the Ark of the Covenant: the Three of God and the Seven of Neighbor.)

"And it shall be as a sign in thy hand, and as a memorial before thy eyes; and that the law of the Lord be always in thy mouth, for with a strong hand the Lord hath brought thee out of the land of Egypt." [From the Book of Exodus]

Dux domus. What a pair of words. So many English words are coupled to these two: all the words containing the "duct" root which means "lead" - all the words containing the "dom" root which means "house". And we shall see more on this title as it links to, and is prefigured by ancient Rome. But today I wish to ponder another phrase: "legem dedisti" = "You gave the law."

Our symbol is the two tablets which God Himself inscribed. In the movie "The Ten Commandments" one of the most dramatic and truly God-inspired special effects shows this amazing event! These ten laws, though sometimes numbered with a slight variation, are the entirety of God's will for us - though we know Jesus pointed out that they can easily be reduced to just two. (Is this a mnemonic clue: the two hands and the five fingers on each? Usually, of course, the numbering comes out to three and seven, but this is going too deep for now.)

But is this the "whole" law? Not quite. For just as we know that the American Constitution is merely about six pages long, with another six of amendments - yet the Federal Code of Law is book upon book - so, too, there are hundreds of details to the Jewish Law - like how to keep the Sabbath, and what foods were forbidden - all those are not stated in the Commandments, though they are somehow implied within them.

When we look back into history, there are other interesting things we might say about law. There was the work of Solon in Greece; there was the Code of Hammurabi (which some hint at having some relation to the ancient Jewish codes); there are the various "customs" of Confucius, which sometimes seem to be an extended "Miss Manners" column, but govern both the individual and the family as well as the state.

But there is one other set of laws which were in some strange way more akin to the Mosaic legality than to others. I speak not in a formal, legal, sense, nor in a historical sense - but in a mystical sense. That set of laws was called "the Twelve Tables" of ancient Rome. What were these?

The Twelve Tables were an early collection of Roman law, dating from the 5th century B.C. The original tables were destroyed when Rome was sacked by the Gauls. Our fragemnts represent a later, modified version. The tables dealt with lawsuits, court procedure, property damage, etc. They were memorized by every schoolboy and were called fons omnis publici privatique juris [the wellspring of all public and private law]. In fact, the Twelve Tables are the beginnings of the development of Roman law. [Dictionary of Latin Literature, James H. Mantinband]

These twelve tablets were displayed in the great Roman Forum: the primary meetingplace in the City, the center of public and judicial activity.

Now, of course these laws were the "outer" or "major" parts: the fundamentals. There were certainly other details which would not be there - the lawyers were quite as busy back then. But there is this difference: the major and foundational law was about as public a thing as it was possible to have. I'm not sure whether the typical City Hall would go about having the Constitution displayed in quite that public a manner - nor would it be memorized by schoolboys.

There are many things we can find to dislike about ancient Rome: whether we speak as American citizens, or as heirs of another 2500 years of history, thought, and legal study, or as followers of the Mosaic or the Christian world-view. For one thing, slavery was permitted. There were silly things too, like the "sumptuary laws" which tried to govern what foods were permitted (oops, aren't we doing that too? - it's funny, for it was then that the "capon" was invented, to take advantage of a legal loophole. I'll post on that another time.) Generally, property was held in more importance than life. Things changed, of course, when the Republic gave way to the Empire - and then, too, there were the rules regarding religion, which got complicated because the emperor was deified... and this led to difficulties and eventual persecutions.

But there were some very good things about Roman Law, too. I won't try to go into the historical inheritance, and influence, of Roman Law which was profound. Somewhere I have seen it stated that certain structures in the Code of Canon Law (the Church's own law) derived from the Roman Law. But even leaving out such details, there is something very dramatic and relevant for us to learn from those Twelve Tablets.

Every ancient Roman saw the Law, day in and day out: it was a "memorial before their eyes"...

And in their education, the Roman schoolboys "had the law always in their mouths"...

"The mouth of the just shall meditate wisdom: and his tongue shall speak judgment. The law of his God is in his heart..."

"Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil."

Come O Adonai.


At 18 December, 2007 19:16, Blogger liturgy said...

This is wonderful to read.

I have placed four different resources on the precious O Antiphons at


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