Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

‘Vere Rex absconditus’: a Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

Verily thou art a hidden King, the God of Israel, the Saviour (Isaias 45, 15).

The last time I stood in this pulpit I spoke of how God continues to manifest his plan, even in our times that are filled with the superficiality and noise of the world; and I said further that we have access to this manifestation, in the end, only by way of prayer. That remains true. But today we have to speak of a paradox. The hiddenness of Christ is one of the mysteries contemplated in today’s Mass, and it is a mystery that demands our reckoning with.

Before we do so, we have to take special note of something. You’ll remember that the texts of the classical Roman Rite preserve, in places, a version of the Latin Bible older than that of St Jerome’s revision, which he completed in about 405.[1] Today we have a striking example of this in the Alleluia verse, which is drawn from the forty-fifth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah. St Jerome’s translation of Isaiah 45, 15 reads: Vere tu es Deus absconditus. But of course, that is not what today’s Alleluia verse sings: a moment ago we heard Vere tu es Rex absconditus. According to the most ancient Latin translation, Isaiah sees not only a hidden God, but a hidden King.

Hence, the text of the Alleluia verse is exquisitely chosen. Truly you are the hidden King. What are the various layers of Christ’s hiddenness? They are many. In a word, the Incarnation itself both reveals and conceals him. It would not be incorrect to say that our Blessed Lord is hidden in plain sight: in the Virgin’s womb; in the silence and poverty of his birth; within the confines of the Holy Family, where his very obedience obscures his kingship. Surely he is hidden most dramatically on the Cross and in his burial. And then he is hidden again when he ascends to the Father.

But there is more. Now He is hidden behind the sacramental veils. He is hidden, in a certain sense, by the Church; he is hidden within his priests, the good and the bad. His sovereignty is hidden within the exigencies of history.

All of that is to say that Christ the King is not perfectly manifest as he will be at the end of time. For now, his kingship is a hidden one.

But why should we dwell upon Christ’s hiddenness? In a word, because a mature faith and a mature life of prayer requires it. I have already listed the general ways in which Christ is mysteriously hidden: but the examples can be multiplied indefinitely when we consider our personal spiritual lives. No doubt all of us here have felt in no uncertain terms the hiddenness of God; but we must know what to do with it.

The truth of the matter is this: hiddenness is not the same thing as non-existence; because Christ is hidden does not mean that he is unreal or that he is powerless. That is why the difference of translation is instructive. Vere tu es Rex absconditus. When a thing is veiled it is hidden—but its very hiddenness points to a presence. And we must be possessed of this truth if our prayer and spiritual life is going to persist and be mature.

There is a natural analogy to be had. We have all suffered the loss of those whom we love; death has touched all of us here, and it will with certainty do so again. But the dead do not become unreal to us. Death has hidden them, absconded them from our immediate company; but their presence and reality are not erased. What is say is especially true of anyone who has lost a spouse or parents or children. The absence of those beloved to us has a reality all its own; the person remains very much real and present to us, but simply under a different mode.

A contemporary author puts it like this: ‘For a soul of deep faith who loves much, the mist and shadow hide an enormity of presence, even as that truth is glimpsed even partially.’   

An enormity of presence. That puts the matter rightly. With that said, we return to the question of prayer. Sacred Scripture constantly exhorts the believer to make known his petitions to God: but given the fact of God’s hiddenness, the manner in which we do this must be fitting. We must be immensely careful of what we demand of God in prayer. Wittingly or not, we certainly go astray whenever we demand that God cease to be hidden; when we expect or challenge him to reveal himself on our terms, either by way of some felt experience or visible effect. Prayer can never take on the manner of a transaction when we approach the hidden King.   

We are beggars, dear friends: we go to God as beggars, steeped in our poverty. And it must be this way. And the Most Blessed Sacrament is proof par excellence of this. Christ the Lord hid himself within the confines of the Holy Family; God hides himself under the sacramental veils of bread and wine. In doing this, he has made himself poor and hidden—and so must we. But while hidden, he lies in wait, ready to dispense his grace to those who recognize and adore him precisely as hidden. 


[1] Cf The Celebration of Mass: a Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal, J B O’Connell, Boonville, NY: Preserving Christian Publications, 2018; pp 10-11: “The Latin text of the Pian Missal is the Itala Vetus for the sung texts of the Proper (i.e., Introit, Gradual, Tract, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion antiphons); the Vulgate for the readings (lesson, Epistle, Gospel.)”

[2] Donald Hagerty, Contemplative Enigmas, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020; p 57; emphasis added.  

{Art Credit: Paolo Veronese  (1528–1588), Jesus Among the Doctors in the Temple (c 1560); Prado.}

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