Coming to church for Advent Sunday Mass this morning, I took the opportunity to pray Matins (only three psalms, however) and Lauds (with Pretiosa); I was struck by verse 3 in the prophecy of Isaias, chapter i, the first nine verses of which are read as the first two lessons at Matins, each time ending with the special Dominican formula, Hæc dicit Dominus, for a reading from the prophets, taken from Is. xlv, 22a and other passages of Holy Writ; this verse, Isaias i, 3, is the last read in the first Lesson of Advent Sunday Matins:
Cognovit bos possessorem suum, et asinus præsepe Domini sui: Israël autem me non cognovit, et populus meus non intellexit. – Hæc dicit Dominus Deus: Convertimini ad me, et salvi eritis. R/. Deo gratias.
(The ox hath known his owner, and the ass the manger of his Lord: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood. – Thus saith the Lord God: Be ye turned back to Me, and ye shall be saved. R/. Thanks be to God.)
Is this not the Christmas story? The ox and the ass indeed shall recognize their Master, when, as the Septuagint puts it, "Lord... in the midst of two animals thou shalt be known" (Κύριε... ἐν μέσῳ δύο ζῴων γνωσθήσῃ) – Hab. iii, 2 (LXX) – whenas Christ having taken flesh, being born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the city of David, of David's house and line (St Luke ii, 4), "born to you a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David... laid in a manger" (St Luke ii, 11, 12b), in a manger "where oxen feed on hay", signifying by this that He is the Bread of Life, born for us in Bethlehem, the "house of bread", – again, why in a manger laid? "because there was no room... in the inn" (St Luke ii, 7), that is, because "the world knew Him not: He came unto His own, and His own received Him not" (St John i, 10b-11). "For Israel hath not known me" (Is. i, 3), even though the chief priests and scribes knew by the prophets that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem of Juda (cf. St Matthew ii, 4-6).
Rather, "the ox hath known his owner, and the ass the manger of his Lord" (Is. i, 3): imaged by these lowly beasts, the lowly shepherds and the gentile magi came unto His crib and bent their knees in homage: "falling down they adored Him" (St Matthew ii, 11). But to as many as shall receive Him, shall turn to Him (moved by His grace, which He mercifully imparts), salvation shall be granted: truly, "Thus saith the Lord God: Be ye converted (or turned back) to Me, and ye shall be saved".
The second verse to catch my attention is one that St Paul himself quotes (Rom. ix, 29) when agonizing over the unbelief of Israel; it is Isaias i, 9, and is likewise, not accidentally, the last verse of the second Lesson at Matins of Advent Sunday, concluded by the same Hæc dicit Dominus:
Nisi Dominus exercituum relinquisset nobis semen, quasi Sodoma fuissemus, et quasi Gomorrha similes essemus. – Hæc dicit Dominus Deus: Convertimini ad me, et salvi eritis. R/. Deo gratias.
(Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a Seed, we would have been as Sodom, and we would be like unto Gomorrha. – Thus saith the Lord God: Be ye turned back to Me, and ye shall be saved. R/. Thanks be to God.)
What happened to Sodom? what to Gomorrha? "the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever" (Apoc. xiv, 11): they dwell among everlasting burnings (cf. Isaias xxxiii, 14). Unless the Lord had left Israel a Seed, that is, the Son of David, the Son of God, "His Son, Who was made to Him of the seed of David, according to the flesh, Who was predestinated the Son of God" (Rom. i, 3-4a), this fate – eternal hell – would have befallen not Israel only, but all men.
In three whole chapters of his Epistle to the Romans (ix-xi), the Apostle lamented the blindness of his people, yet regarded this as mysteriously providential, that it has led to the ongoing conversion of the the Gentiles, till their fulness be gathered in (Rom. xi, 26), for that they did not recognize their Saviour Christ when He came, He Who is of their stock, "according to the flesh, over all things God blessed for ever" (Rom. ix, 5): but he recalls that in the end all Israel should be saved (Rom. xi, 27): for to the ancient chosen people of God, the Jews, "the gifts and the calling of God are without [His] repenting of them" (Rom. xi, 29), and likewise to the Gentiles called in this the last age, "have obtained mercy", in a strange manner, as it were "through their unbelief" (Rom. ix, 30): so that, to "as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His name" (St John i, 12), whether Jew or Greek, slave or free.
As the hallowed phrase puts it, "Thus saith the Lord God: Be ye converted (or turned back) to Me, and ye shall be saved". God's plan is so infinitely deep and wise: all being in unbelief, He has mercy on all (cf. Rom. xi, 32): "O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!" (Rom. xi, 33a).
Blessed be God for opening unto us the treasures of His word.