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.
Many years ago when I was still living in Germany, some time in the mid-1970s, I used to go on prison visits with a local priest. I was at that time a bank employee, and these visits seemed to me to balance my life in a useful way.
One of the prison inmates was a man then probably in his late 50s. He was a loner, and though he was always present in the prison’s leisure room when I was there, he never joined the group conversations and kept himself to himself. Eventually I learned from other prisoners that this man was a serial offender, usually convicted of burglaries and other similar offences. However, despite his clear inability to fit into society, he was known never to be violent towards the victims of his crimes.
One day I did manage to get him to talk to me, and I was completely taken aback by his story. Before the Second World War, he had been a Roman Catholic ordinand, but when the war started he felt he should join the German army and did so. From 1941 he was posted to Russia, and apparently was known as a courageous but also a humane soldier (a significant feature, given where he was and who he was fighting for).
In December1943, he and a group of other soldiers were instructed to ‘clean out’ a shed which had been used as a refuge and hiding place by some Jews, who had been found by the SS and had presumably been murdered. As this soldier and his comrades removed the bodies, he saw that one of the refugees had written something on the wall — the single Hebrew word ‘Adonai’. So here, somewhere in Russia, during Advent in 1943, this German soldier was reminded of his theological training, and as he put it to me, the shout of the people yearning for their God amidst this terror reached him through this one Hebrew word written on a barn wall. He was not able to fight any more after that day, and was in fact relieved to be wounded a few days later and, as a result, transported back to Germany.
After the war he was unable to return either to his seminary, or indeed to an ordered life, and he drifted in and out of petty crime. I ended my prison visits a short while later, as I was moving to Ireland, and I have no idea what happened to this man. But I think of him from time to time.
O Adonai has been described as the most Jewish of the O Antiphons, and it reminds us that the people of the law that was handed down on Sinai are the people to whom the Messiah was to come, and that we are also possessors of their heritage and are their brothers and sisters. And it reminds us that the Lord’s outstretched arm reaches through the torments and cruelties of this world and can touch us when we least expect it.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski is President of Dublin City University.