O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai:Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
The second of the ‘O Antiphons’ points us back to the appearance of God to Moses in the flame of the burning bush, as well as forward to those tests of our faith by fire of which SSS Peter (1 Peter, 2:7) and Paul (1 Cor 3:12-15) speak. They refer back to what Isaiah prophesies when he wrote: ‘Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction’ (Isaiah 48:10). This is a theme taken up in many other places in Scripture. Malachi (3:1-18) writes:
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
If you have ever seen a sliver-smith at work, you will have an idea of the intensity of the fire, and that image of the impurities being melted away is a powerful one to our fallen humanity.
Eliot uses the imagery in Little Gidding:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.
The brief sun in the darkness is that Light which lights the whole world, though the world knows it not, but it can light our cold hearts and become, as Eliot has it, that ‘pentecostal fire’ which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us. He writes:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
We are redeemed from the fires of hell only by the purifying fire of Pentecost. Who shall abide the day of his coming?
Why ‘Adonai’? This ancient title, ‘Lord’ was uttered because we know ourselves to be men of unclean lips – the the four letters known as ‘The Tetragramaton’ – YHWH – could not be was not to be spoken by fallen mankind. The sense of our sinfulness oppresses us, even as we receive the remedy for it. He assumed our flesh to redeem it, he took on the form of a slave for our sake. What a mysterious fire is this where the maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things, seen and unseen, became man, entered into our darkness to bring the light that would light our way to Heaven. The name that could not be spoken, the Word who spoke the world into existence, came in flesh to us, and in dying in that flesh entered into the great silence of death, only to overcome it and to become the first fruits of our redemption. Just as the bush burn and was not consumed, so too did Christ die and yet was not, as we are without him, consumed by death.
In that place where all lights fail, we have one light that will not fail us. And as Eliot reminds us at the end of Little Gidding:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
[There is a wonderful reading of the whole poem by Jeremy Irons here]