O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
It is commonplace in our celebration of Christmas to refer to Christ as “king”: in our carols, in our prayers, and not least in the gospels’ infancy narratives, which are shot through with the imagery of kingship and empire. Constructed to emphasize Jesus’ messianic identity, the infancy narratives describe Jesus as descended (as it were) from the Davidic line. In Matthew’s account, the Magi, seeking a “king,” consult with Herod, who is threatened by the rumor of such a birth, and who defends his throne with unimaginable violence. Luke’s account not only places Joseph in the line of David, but has Jesus born in a “city of David.” Of course, both accounts set the stage clearly, that all of this is happening within the overarching reign of imperial Rome. Matthew’s genealogy looks back to divide the generations from Abraham to the Messiah with two other events: the Davidic monarchy and the exile at the hands of still another empire. As if all of this royalty weren’t enough, traditional piety even goes beyond the gospel and turns the Magi into “kings” themselves!
This title, “Rex Gentium,” echoes the role of the Magi in Matthew’s narrative. This “king of the Jews” is not simply presented as the fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes, but also the fulfilment of prophetic expectation that all the nations would flock to Israel. The gospels certainly suggest that now, with this king, all the nations – the Gentiles – will be allowed into a covenant with this God. The Latin title appears in the Vulgate in Jeremiah 10, in the middle of a rejection, indeed, a mockery, of idolatry. In this passage, God is warning Israel not to emulate the worship practices of other nations, even mentioning the astronomy the Magi would later practise. Israel’s God is placed over and above all other authorities, the kings and the gods, other nations offer: “Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For that is your due; among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is no one like you.” (Jeremiah 10:7, NRSV). Calling Jesus the Rex Gentium thus identifies him with YHWH, an identification even more boldly made by addressing Jesus directly as the Creator in the last line’s echo of Genesis 2. Moreover, identifying this child as the Rex Gentium makes the adoration of the Magi a striking reversal: not only does Israel come to reject the spiritual practices of other nations to hew to their own covenant with God, but the other nations, while following their practices, are drawn and converted to the worship of Israel’s God as well.
This opening up of covenant, the coming of the Gentiles to Israel’s God, is the allusion in “making both one.” Those chosen long ago are made one with those who find their way to this God by wandering through the darkness, following what light they have. The Gentiles are grafted onto the vine of Israel by being built upon Christ, the foundation or “cornerstone” of a people who become in the words of 1 Peter, “living stones,” a “spiritual house,” a “holy nation” and a “royal priesthood.”
Jesus is not just the king of nations, but the “desire of nations” as well. Here the chant, with one little biblical reference, makes another interesting set of connections. It refers to a “desired of all nations” (desideratus cunctis gentibus) in Haggai 2:7 (2:8 in the Vulgate), where the “desired” is the nations’ wealth. Upon return from the exile, the promise comes:
Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure [“desired”] of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts. (Haggai 2:6-9, NRSV)
Haggai spoke of the rebuilding of the temple, with tribute from other nations; again, the Magi allude back to it with their gifts. But the chant plays with the image still further: Jesus himself is the treasure of all nations, even if the nations think they can bring the tribute to him. Ultimately, everything is God’s in the first place, and God is really the only one who can give.
The above relates the chant’s First Testament references to the infancy narratives. This isn’t a Christmas chant, however, but an Advent chant. The associations with the birth of Christ are strong, but in any great Advent text, the call to “come” is not narrowly expressed in such terms. With fruitful ambiguity, this text can be applied quite directly to the other dimension of Advent: our call upon the King of the Nations to come now, to fulfil his reign.
The kingship of this Rex Gentium continues to stand in contrast to the powers of this world. Our world remains full of Herods, and the idols still invite our allegiance. Our day-to-day narratives are shaped by violence and the threat of violence, the irresistible sway of socially negotiated power, and the impact of wealth upon billions of lives. When these forces override the freedom and dignity of even a single person, the sovereignty of God is implicitly denied. Power is wielded, recklessly, by those who imagine that the gold and silver are theirs, despite what the Lord of hosts has said. The gold and silver can even buy the power to create the stories we tell each other. Those who would try to free themselves, in vain, from such overwhelming social influence might be tempted to lose hope.
And then, seemingly stuck in our culture and ideology, plodding through the darkness the only ways we know how, we discover a light we could never have dreamed up on our own. We try to bring our gifts and offerings, such as they are, only to discover that the One to whom we bring them is the real offering and gift. We let go of false promises to escape this earth, this mud, and only then we find instead the One who chose to create us from it in the first place. The glimpses of the light, the whispered hints of a return from our exile, are slight, but very, very real – real enough to enable us to utter the one word that matters: come.