December 17th

Today begins the final days of Advent leading up to Christmas.  We have the “Great ‘O’s” during the liturgy of the Mass and Vespers between now and December 24th.  Even though we haven’t started the fourth week of Advent, we already begin the final preparation.  We cry out today, “O Sapientia,” or ” Oh Wisdom!” and beg Him to come.  We are of course more familiar with the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” but each of the verses of that hymn are the translations of the antiphons sung during Vespers and assigned to one of the days between December 17th and 23rd, with O Emmanuel coming last.

The first reading contains a prophecy about the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  The reflections of the Church Fathers are interesting, but they are using a slightly different translation of the verse where it says, “you have grown up on prey my son.”  They have something that sounds more like, “you have come forth as a shoot, my son.”  For them it clearly refers to the incarnation where Jesus is not born of the “seed” of man, but rather his flesh is taken from his mother Mary miraculously.  We have the image of a branch that begins to grow on a stump or on a tree – in the same way Christ takes flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary without coming into being, but having existed eternally.  This text also points to the eternal procession of the Son, begotten by the Father.  The image is the Lion and the Lion’s whelp.  The Father is the Lion, the Son is the Lion’s whelp – they are one and the same in the prophecy: A Lion’s Whelp: Jesus, and a Lion who sleeps: the Father.  Yet further the Church Father Rufus tells us something interesting about a newborn Lion’s whelp or cub.  The first thing a cub does when it’s born is sleep for three days, only to be awoken finally by the roar of its father.  This is an interesting image for us of Jesus who sleeps in death for three days only to be risen by the power of God.  A power that he shares with his Father.


This text appears to be directed to the patriarch Judah, indeed, but more so that later Judah is meant, the true confessor who was born of that tribe and who alone is praised by his brothers; of them he says, “I will declare your name to my brothers.” He is the Lord by nature but a brother by grace; his hands, which he stretched out to an unbelieving people, are on the back of his enemies. For with those same hands and by that same passion Christ protected his own, subjugated hostile powers, and made subject to himself all people who were without faith and devotion. Of these the Father says to his Son, “And you will rule in the midst of your enemies.” It was their own wickedness that made them enemies, not Christ’s will. In this there is a great gift of the Lord. Previously, spiritual wickedness generally used to make our neck bend to the yoke of captivity. Thus even David wrote that he felt in some way the hands of those who triumphed over him, for he said, “Upon my back sinners have wrought.” But now spiritual wickedness is subject to the triumph of Christ and to his hands, as it were; that is, wickedness undergoes the affliction of captivity, being subject forever in deeds and in works. And it is he indeed to whom the sons of his Father bow down, when we bow down to him; for he has permitted us to call upon the Father, and to be subject to the Father is to be subject to virtue.1


By saying “lion” and “lion’s whelp,” he has clearly pointed toward the two persons: that of the Father and that of the Son. He said, “From a shoot, my son, you have gone up” in order to show the generation of Christ according to the flesh. Christ, after his incarnation, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin, sprouted in her, and like a flower and a pleasant perfume, once he went out of that womb into the world, he appeared visibly. On the other hand, by saying “whelp of the lion” he indicates Christ’s generation according to spirit, through which he appears to come directly from God, as he has shown him like a king born of a king. However, he has not remained silent about his generation according to the flesh but says clearly, “From a shoot, my son, you have gone up.” Isaiah says, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a blossom shall come up from it.” The root of Jesse was the stump of the patriarchs, like a root planted in the ground, and the rod coming out of it was Mary, because she was from the house and the family of David. The blossom that had come up from the rod was Christ, the one that Jacob had prophesied by saying, “From a shoot, my son, you have gone up.”2


The mystical interpretation, according to which the lion’s whelp not only symbolically but also literally signifies Christ, is much more suitable to this passage. In fact, the Physiologus writes with regard to the lion’s whelp that after its birth it sleeps for three days and three nights; then the lair itself awakens the sleeping whelp, as if it was shaken by the noise and the roar of the father. Therefore this whelp rises from the shoot: he was born from the Virgin, not from a seed but from a shoot. So Christ was born without sexual intercourse with a man and without the natural seed, like a bough or a branch. In this manner the reality of the assumption of the flesh from the Virgin is clearly demonstrated, and the contact with human or natural seed is excluded in the holy shoot.3


  1. THE PATRIARCHS 4.17. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (pp. 326–327). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  2. ON THE BLESSINGS OF ISAAC AND JACOB 16. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 328). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. THE BLESSINGS OF THE PATRIARCHS 1.6. Sheridan, M. (Ed.). (2002). Genesis 12–50 (p. 329). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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3 years ago

Oh my gosh! I love that about the lion’s whelp when born sleeping for three days only to be awoken by the fathers ROAR!

Thank you Fr Francis!

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