“O Emmanuel”: God with All of Us

23 Dec O EmmanuelFrom Vespers, 23 December:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

While the original texts of most of the “O Antiphons” were in Latin, here’s one that’s even more ancient (although Latin appropriated it later!).  “Emmanuel” is a Hebrew word taken directly from the original text of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

As a teenager and young adult, I studied for eight years (high school and college)  in the seminary, discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood.  When I left the seminary after college, the military draft was still in place, and I was due to be drafted.  Believing that I might have more control over matters if I simply enlisted before I could be drafted, I joined the Navy.  No guarantees were made, and I had no idea where I might be sent after the conclusion of Basic Training. I was stunned and thrilled to find out that my first orders after boot camp were to go to Hebrew language school for a year; I was blessed to serve as a Hebrew linguist for the first couple of years in the Navy, largely on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.immanuel1 (2)

In language school, all of our instructors were native-born Israelis, known as sabra.  They quickly got us chatting away in modern Hebrew, and one of the topics they would ask involved answering the question, “What did you study in school?” (“Ma lamadita bevet sefer?”)   When I responded that I had studied Philosophy, they asked why.  I answered that I had been studying to become a priest.  From that moment on, every afternoon for at least one full hour, we began reading Biblical Hebrew.  What a great joy it was to be able to read the Hebrew scriptures in their original language!  One particular text we read was the prophet Isaiah, including the verse given above.  “Im [“with”] + “anu” [“us”] + “El” [“God”]: God with us!  (The Latin and English sometimes interchange the “I” for an “E”, so either “Immanuel” or “Emmanuel” is acceptable.) The original word order is somewhat interesting, with the word for God coming at the END of the phrase.  While word order is of differing significance in different languages, the fact that God is at the end of the phrase underscores the foundational importance of God to all that goes before.  We see the same thing in many Hebrew names: for example, Michael is “mi” [“who”] + “cha” [“like”] + “El” [“God”].  So, “Immanuel” becomes almost a cry of stunned realization: “With us, GOD!”

At the beginning of the third chapter of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns his attention to the nature of the Church. “The Church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.  She is certainly a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary” (#111).  The relationship of the People with God always begins in God’s own initiative: “God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him” (#112).  So, the fact that we proclaim that God is with us flows from our realization that God has CHOSEN to be with us in every human condition and need.  We have not earned God’s presence, we have not somehow bargained God int it!  The covenant is always God’s initiative; as Love itself, God extends and provides for all creation.  “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone.  God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age” (#113).

Francis-feet-drugs-poor-EPAThe implications of With-us-GOD are profound!  As we know, “possessing God” and then waiting for the rapture at the end of time are not Catholic concepts!  On the contrary, With-us-God “means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. . . .  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (#114).


One this final evening before the Vigil of Christmas, what is the practical, pastoral impact of the realization in our own lives that God has truly come to us and remains with us?  Am I, as an individual believer, and are we, as Church, a place where all people can find “mercy freely given”, universal welcome, love, forgiveness and encouragement?  Or, am I — are we — perceived as people of rules and judgments who tend to exclude rather than include?  This Christmas, as we celebrate the union and universal gift of God-for-all, may we re-dedicate ourselves to the liberating power of the joy of the Gospel!

4 Advent Candles

One comment on ““O Emmanuel”: God with All of Us

  1. James Graham says:


    You ran out of time as you presented your homily…… kind of left us on our own to suggest a response to your presentation (:>) (:>)

    The information Bill presented regarding the sentence structure >>>> God with us or rather “with us God”

    This simple message “with us God” as Bill informed us has really made me think. I don’t know, maybe my Benedictine spirituality causing or affecting my Lectio Devina (divine reading/contemplation on that reading) has me thinking of the many ways we can read and consider that phrase.

    Christmas, like all major feasts of the church has a certain or should I say has been integrated into the secular. Our pews will be filled and the homilists will have a standing only congregation. As I will allude to later on, the homilist faces a significant challenge: how to say something old, but in a new way; a way to reach everyone in a way that is not so….. same old…same old.

    Although I am not preaching this year, I am thinking I’d develop something around Bill’s information. I always prepare a homily (in my mind) as part of my contemplation of the coming weeks scripture readings. That’s where the Lectio Devina really works its magic. Certainly that is not to say I don’t incorporate it into my daily experiences. Enough about me and my habits!

    Christmas mass will present so many opportunities for homiletic. As usual, many attendees will be so called Christmas and Easter catholics, folks looking for some significant way of celebrating the “holiday”, faithful church attending catholics and what have you.

    Imagine the possibilities for identifying with ALL those folks in a way that reaches then where they are at.

    The nonbeliever attending via pressure to be with family/friends might normally think:

    Sure……. God with us/with us God ….. right!…….. how to make them aware that “with us IS God”

    Some may be questioning their faith, and who doesn’t at one time or another;

    the reassuring signal…… YES, God with us…… indeed “with us God”

    the firm believer God with us as he/she exclaims with joy

    the church goer (and that’s it…… my obligation is completed) how to make them realize… God with us…… in the person sitting next to them at mass, the children, the choir and so forth..
    INDEED, “with us God”

    OR along with so many others who recognize….. especially today……. GOD …. “with us God” the public servant, hospital worker, convenient store worker….. so many other working… so many homeless, so many volunteers in the food kitchen so many seeking a meal in that kitchen

    “God with us” as we give thanks for healing for little Vinny and the countless others whose prayers have been answered…….. who have remained sober because of God’s Grace

    “With us God” as our loved ones return from battle and our involvement comes to a close

    Yes, as we seek peace, may we recognize that peace “with us God”


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