Rorate Caeli

Lacordaire in Advent: "A star shall rise out of Jacob"

Montes Israel, ramos vestros expandite, et florete, et fructus facite: Prope est ut veniat dies Domini. (Response to First Lesson in Matins, Tuesday in the Second Week of Advent, Roman Breviary - cf. Ez. xxxvi)

Isaac, the son of Abraham, hears the same promise and the same prophecy; they are repeated to Jacob, the son of Isaac. The three first Hebrew generations, thus confirmed in the hope of the Messiah, spread out in twelve patriarchs, fathers of twelve tribes; and Jacob, about to die, assembles them around his bed to close the first Messianic age by a solemn prophecy, which sums up the preceding ones, giving, at the same time, additional precision to them. Surrounded, then, by his twelve children, he announces to each of them, by some characteristic traits, what will be his lot in the future. 

Having arrived at Judah, he says these memorable words to him: "Judah, thee shall thy brethren praise: thy hands shall be on the necks of thy enemies; the sons of thy father shall bow down to thee. Judah is a lion's whelp: to the prey, my son, thou art gone up: resting thou hast couched as a lion, and as a lioness: who shall rouse him? The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah, nor a ruler from his thigh, till he come that is to be sent, and he shall be the expectation of nations."

Thus, at the moment when the patriarchal inheritance becomes subdivided into twelve branches, the branch from which the Messiah is to be born is designated; it is to be that of Judah; and the day predestined for the appearance of the Messiah is marked by a sign which posterity will easily recognise.

The blood of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is henceforth fertile; it multiplies in a land which has given it hospitality; and having soon become an object of fear and jealousy, it passes from exile to bondage, in order to serve in tribulation an apprenticeship necessary to its high destinies. Its enemies think to destroy, they do but strengthen it. The Israelites are a people. Moses brings them out of Egypt, and leads them across the desert to the foot of Sinai, from whence come the laws which are to govern them. 

Follow, gentlemen, follow that marvellous march of so great a people; the eyes of your childhood formerly gazed upon its wonders, look at them again with the thought of riper years. From encampment to encampment the children of Israel arrived before Jordan, to the frontiers of that territory inhabited by their first ancestors, and the possession of which is promised to their posterity. There they meet a whole people in arms awaiting those adventurers who despoiled Egypt, and whose march has resounded from the desert even to the hills of Judaea. Moab has ranged her battalions, she has raised her altars, convoked her chiefs; the children of Israel are afoot, with their wives, their children, their soldiers, their Levites, bearing, hidden under the skins of animals, the tabernacle of the God who has just spoken to them from Sinai. 

A man of the East advances between the two peoples. "Balak," says he, "Balak, king of the Moabites, hath brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east: Come, said he, and curse Jacob; make haste and detest Israel. How shall I curse him whom God hath not cursed? By what means shall I detest him whom the Lord detesteth not? I shall see him from the top of the rocks, and shall consider him from the hills. This people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and know the number of the stock of Israel?

These unexpected blessings alarmed Moab; the prophet is implored to change his language; if he will not curse, they pray him at least not to bless. Three times does Balaam open his mouth; three times he blesses the conquering people before him; and at last the Messianic prophecy escapes from him as in spite of himself: "I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel, and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste the children of Seth. ... Alas, who shall live when God shall do these things? They shall come in galleys from Italy, they shall overcome the Assyrians, and shall waste the Hebrews, and at last they themselves also shall perish." [Numbers xxiv]

Observe again, gentlemen, that we are not now examining whether Balaam was or was not a prophet, but simply showing the course of the Messianic idea in the historical life of the Jewish people. You see this idea taking here a new development; it is no longer a patriarch of Israel who announces the coming of the Messiah, and the establishment of His reign over all the children of Seth, that is to say, of Adam, but a stranger. And he marks the circumstances of His coming with most strange perspicacity, since he even designates the domination of the Romans over the East and over the Jewish people as the precursory sign of the Messiah's appearance.

Henri-Dominique Lacordaire
Conférences de Notre-Dame de Paris (1846)