The O antiphon for December 22nd reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world is an inescapably political event. It speaks of the coming King of nations as the source of unity, encouraging us to remember that an authentic quest for unity cannot marginalize or relativize the place of Christ as the unifier, as the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17). Deep dissatisfaction with discord should not be understood in merely psychological or sociological terms. It is a recognition (however faint) of the disordering effects of sin and a longing (however inchoate) for redemption, which will have political consequences.
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
O King of the nations, and their desire,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
the cornerstone making both one:
veni, et salva hominem,
Come and save the human race,
quem de limo formasti.
which you fashioned from clay.
The imagery here draws from a number of biblical sources, including Isaiah 28:16 (“Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation”) and Ephesians 2:14 (“For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us”).
In Arvo Pärt’s setting, O König aller Völker is the most urgent and relentless of the antiphons, perhaps representing the deep longing for the unity lost in the Fall. The staccato rhythms throughout the work restlessly bridge us between the quiet confidence of the Dawn that is Christ in the previous antiphon and the final proclamation of the God-with-us miracle in “O Emmanuel.”
Below, the Seattle-based Byrd Ensemble, conducted by Markdavin Obenza, sings O König aller Völker.
O König aller Völker, ihre Erwartung und Sehnsucht,
O king of all nations, their expectation and desire,
Schlußstein, der den Bau zusammenhält,
Keystone, which holds all things together:
o komm und errette den Menschen,
O come and save mankind,
den du aus Erde gebildet!
whom thou hast formed from clay!