O Rex Gentium: Meditations on the O Antiphons

The sixth O Antiphon is to the King of Nations.

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

O king of nations, and their desire,
and cornerstone, who makes them one,
come, and save humankind,
which you formed from clay.

This antiphon follows the theme of triumph begun in the last one. If O Oriens shows how the incarnation prefigured the cosmic dawn of Christ’s resurrection, O Rex Gentium depicts the ascended Christ enthroned over the world. He has taken up not only David’s scepter but the scepter of heaven, subjecting all powers in heaven and earth to himself.

Three messianic titles appear in the first two lines: “king of nations,” “desire of nations,” and “cornerstone, making them one” (cf. Jeremiah 10:7, Haggai 2:7, and Ephesians 2:20 respectively). These images together suggest the fullness of his presence: he is over us as king, he is with us as beloved, and he is at our foundation as cornerstone. He binds us to the Godhead, to his incarnate person, and to one another.

Once again, the antiphon points to eschatological truths at the tension between time and eternity. Christ’s divine monarchy will be completed (within time) at the end of all things; nevertheless, his sovereignty manifests in this age in his Church, the kingdom of God among the kingdoms of men. Christ is the Church’s king and head; he is also the Church’s beloved; and finally, he is the Church’s cornerstone.

But the hymnist further hints at the reconciliation of the eschaton already at work within the Church. By a divine alchemy, humankind is refashioned. Christ, who first made man from the stuff of the earth, is making men one.

The theme of union is threaded through the Bible, from the sacred union of aboriginal man and woman to the wedding of the Lamb in Revelation. Its fullest expression appears in the high priestly prayer of Christ (John 17:20-23). This is no mere concord, but a supernatural sharing in Christ figuring in the Eucharist and the life of the Church, bringing heaven and earth together.

This, in essence, means that Christ’s incarnation initiated a new, deified human race (cf. Eph 2). The new humanity is the body of Christ, growing with a divine energy. In it are neither male nor female, young nor old, Jew nor Gentile. There are simply persons, human in a fuller sense than can be yet imagined.

The Magi–perhaps a literal reference to aristocratic Zoroastrian priests–have sometimes been regarded as a symbol of this aspect of Christ’s messiahship. They featured in early Christian art (interestingly, visually paralleling the three youths in the fiery furnace), and at some point, they began to be depicted as representing the various nations of mankind come to worship Christ: one was African, one European, one Asian; one was old, one middle-aged, one young; etc.

An ancient Christian would have also seen Pentecost hidden in this antiphon, for the harmony of Pentecost is the answer to the confusion of Babel. Christ reunites nations, peoples, and tongues; all are drawn by his light to his endless wedding feast.

O Rex Gentium thus proclaims that Christ’s kingship is really about communion in the rich, scriptural sense. Rather than evoke images of tyrannical emperors, it ought to elate us with the message that it is our Maker and Beloved who reigns over all things, having accomplished his coup against death and the devil. Our heavenly sovereign is also our peace, the foundation of our unity. He shares our human nature, and he is with us.


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