“O Emmanuel”: O God-With-Us, our King and Giver of Law, the Longing of the Peoples and their Savior:
come to save us, Lord our God!
Here is the final antiphon, assigned to 23 December. 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).
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. 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.
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! 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).
The 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).
As Advent comes to a close, most of us will be singing — almost as a matter of routine — “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. Some maintain that the verses have been prayed in one way or another since the 8th Century, although the tune is from the 19th Century. In one sense it is unfortunate that it has become ubiquitous and taken for granted. The full verses of the hymn, however, are actually a summary of all of the O Antiphons which we have considered over the last week. Here, for your convenience, are the verses of the hymn. May they serve as a reminder of our final days of preparation for the coming of the Lord!
1 O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
2 O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain
3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain
5 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain
6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain
7 O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain
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!