“O Emmanuel”: God Who Walks With Us

“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!

23 Dec O EmmanuelHere 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.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!  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).

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.

Refrain:
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

ADVENT REFLECTION

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

“O Rex Gentium”: The King They Desired

“O Rex Gentium”: O King of the Nations,
and the one they desired,
the keystone who makes both peoples one,
come and save mankind,
whom you shaped from the mud.

22 Dec O Rex Gentium

The Jewish people had always wanted a King, and in Isaiah, the prophet describes the coming Messiah as a King with a difference.  Consider:

  • “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
  • “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Rex GentiumThe divine King of the Nations is not like any other monarch or political head of state.  I particularly love the line that our King is “desired by the people”; Kings were rarely determined by the desires of their subjects!  But our King is our Desire, our ultimate desire, a King that fills every longing, every need, every emptiness.  The King establishes a reign of peace, a world that no longer even LEARNS about war.  What a new way of thinking about things!  This “novus mentis habitus” had been sought by many recent church leaders, including all of our popes from John XXIII to Francis.  Pope Francis writes:

What is called for is an evangelization capable of shedding light on these new ways of relating to God, to others and to the world around us, and inspiring essential values.  It must reach the places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost soul of our cities (Evangelii Gaudium, #74).

As disciples of this new Messiah-King, we find ourselves in the midst of these new “narratives and paradigms.”  How can we best enter the story?

ADVENT REFLECTION

What new ways of relating to God am I being called to?  How are we nurturing that relationship?  Prayer, study, service?  What new ways of relating to others am I being called to?  And what new ways of relating to the world around us?  Where, specifically, in our communities, are these “new narratives and paradigms” being formed?  In our inner cities?  In agriculture, family farms and migrant worker camps?  On our campuses and businesses?  How do I share in forming those new narratives?

4 Advent Candles

“O Clavis David”: Keys to Open Doors

O Clavis David: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

20 Dec O Clavis David

Today, 20 December, the “O” Antiphon is O Clavis David (O Key of David):

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead prisoners from the prison cell,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Today the Church, again using the language of the prophet Isaiah, refers to the Messiah as the Key of David. Consider the following passages from the prophet:

  • Isaiah 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”
  • Isaiah 42:6-7: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

The notion that the Messiah has the power of the key is further referenced in the New Testament when Christ gives the “power of the Francis washing feetkeys” to Peter.  While, of course, the Key can “shut, and no one can open,” the hope of the Antiphon is on the opening of dungeons and the liberation of people from bondage.  With Christ comes freedom.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis often uses the language of freedom and openness to all in their need.  Consider, at #63:

We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people.  In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.

O-Key-of-David-1While the pope clearly criticizes certain cultural and societal shortcomings which devalue the human person and keep them “locked up” in various ways, he continues to level criticism as appropriate on the structures of the Church itself and the attitudes of some of its people.  For example, at #70:

It is also true that at times greater emphasis is placed on the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or an alleged private revelations which would replace all else, than on the impulse of Christian piety.There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic “popular piety”.  Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. . . . It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition.  Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray.  There is also a certain exodus towards other faith communities.  The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.

This is quite a review!  So how does the “Key of David” open us up to address this general breakdown?  We believe that Christ, fulfilling those prophecies of Isaiah, IS the light to the nations, and he IS able to open the eyes of the blind, and to set those imprisoned free.  Since this is a blog dedicated to all things diaconal, we can ask specifically of all who are ordained to this service: How are we to “use” the Key of David in our ministries?  How might we address that rather bleak checklist of “prison cells” enumerated by the pope?  Each one of those items is, in fact, hampering the freedom of all, and we are called to help break down those barriers.  How can we improve family communication, use the power of the media in positive ways, preach the objective truth that God loves God’s creation and wants all to live in freedom, the use of resources for the common good of all, reach out with new energy to the poor and the marginalized, be a more welcoming parish community, and assist in developing a healthy Christian spirituality?  Christ is the Key, and he has called us all to participate in the use of that Key in the world today.

ADVENT REFLECTION

Take a look around the parish.  What structures, policies and practices can and must be reformed so that the Key (Christ) can be more effectively used?  Are there things keeping people “in their place” rather than setting them free? Now look beyond the parish?  What needs in the community are not being met at all?  How can we move outside parish and even Church boundaries to carry the Key to all of those imprisoned?  Do we use the Key to open or to close?

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“O Adonai”: Freedom through God’s Strength and Mercy

“O Adonai”: O Sacred Lord of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

18 Dec O AdonaiThe “O Antiphons” are titles to be associated with the Messiah, the Anointed One; on 18 December, the Messiah is linked to the Lord of Israel who saved Israel.  The connection continues through the allusion to Moses, called to lead the people to freedom in God’s name, and to whom God would give the Torah on Sinai.  Although in English we tend to interpret “law” in a sense of “rules”, that is not the way it is understood in Hebrew and the Jewish tradition.  Torah refers to instruction or teaching.  In the covenant relationship with God, these instructions describe the practical nature of how the covenant is to be lived.

adonai_10God’s part of the covenant is to rescue us.  When Pope Francis promulgated Misericordiae Vultus announcing the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, he chose to evoke this scene of the all-powerful God with Moses:

1. Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature.  . . .  Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.

Pope Francis hears confession during penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican

Our relationship with God is not about law enforcement but about faithfulness and compassion in the relationship.  Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium #44) reminds pastors and others who serve in ministry that, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.”

I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.  A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.

handsThe Church, the pope reminds his readers, is always open because God is always open to all.  “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open” (#47).  In addressing the pastoral consequences of this radical openness, the pope tackles a current issue head on:

The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.  But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

The pope concludes the chapter by recalling his frequent exhortation that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”  In his opening of the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s, he challenged us all to be mindful of the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Spirit of the Samaritan.

The God of Israel, Adonai, is the God of all.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In serving others, do we accept the challenge to be missionary, to be constantly reaching out to others rather than sitting in our churches waiting for people to come to us?  Do we act as “arbiters of grace” or “facilitators of grace”?  Are we guilty of treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect” or do we understand Eucharist as Adonai reaching out to all in mercy?  Adonai, the Lord God of Israel, comes to set us all free, and we who serve in any way, are challenged to be instruments of that freedom.

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“O Sapientia”: O Wisdom!

O Sapientia: O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation. 

osapientiaWe are a people constantly in seek of Wisdom, both as individuals and as People of God.  Pope Francis has said repeatedly that the entire Church is a missionary disciple, a disciple who “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.”  It is interesting to think of the entire People of God in this way: as a singular disciple on mission.  Just as I, as an individual Christian disciple, need constantly to grow in understanding, so too does the entire Church.  The Pope reminds those of us who serve in the ministry of theology: “It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help ‘the judgment of the Church to mature.'”  This is a quote taken directly from the Second Vatican Council’s monumental Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, #12).

Pope at Holy DoorWe celebrate the O Antiphons this year in the context of an Extraordinary Year of Mercy.  Today we seek the wisdom of God to rededicate ourselves to mercy which is, according to Pope Francis, “the beating heart of the Gospel.”  This call for a broad and diverse search for wisdom once again calls upon the wisdom of the whole Tradition of the Church, with this particular section supported by an extensive reference to St. Thomas Aquinas; Pope Francis will call to mind the example of St. John XXIII who says essentially the same thing.  Wisdom, in short, is not “monolithic”, nor is it a hoard of theological propositions known in fullness and waiting only to be transmitted verbatim and intact to succeeding generations, cultures and peoples.  The pope writes, in #41: “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. ‘The deposit of the faith is one thing, the way it is expressed is another.'”  That is the voice of St. John XXIII, exhorting the world’s bishops at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.  Pope Francis cautions that when some people “hold fast to a formulation [which] fails to convey its substance,” we can — with every good intention — “sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian.”  He then cites St. John Paul II, who wrote that “the expression of truth can take different forms.  The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning.”  Now apply these thoughts to God’s mercy: what are the myriad concrete ways we might find to be merciful in our own lives?  Mercy is a constant; the ways we convey that mercy are limitless.

We have already seen in earlier posts how the pope is committed to helping the Church recover her missionary purpose, and that this mission is not only to reach everyone in a general way, but in very concrete ways which are understandable to all people today, regardless of culture or history or age.  Past ages found beautiful and creative ways of expressing eternal truths in their own day and time; we must not do the same for our own, and not merely try to repeat the brilliant work of the past which may no longer be capable of communicating truth as it once did.  And specifically, we search for ways to communicating God’s truth through acts of mercy.

ADVENT REFLECTION

As we move more intently into our final preparations for celebrating the coming of Christ anew into our lives, how well do I express my faith to others in ways that are full of meaning, promise and hope?  What about our parish: What customs do we continue to hold onto which — if we were truly honest with each other — no long seem to be capable of expressing the truth of our relationship with Christ and our responsibility to the world around us.  Honestly review our lives as individuals and as parish, and then reflect: Do we unduly “burden” those around us?  Do we have the courage to let go and to let God inspire us with Divine Wisdom in finding new ways to proclaim the Christ to the world. For those of us who serve as deacons, do we continue to grow, not only as disciples, but in our ministerial competence?  Are we open to new ideas, even when those ideas may be challenging to our former ways of thought?   “O Wisdom” is a title given to Christ today; may our own relationship with Wisdom give us the freedom and courage to find new ways of sharing God’s truth and mercy.

Gaudete

 

The “O Antiphons” 2015

oAs we entire the final days of Advent, we have reached the time of the beautiful “O Antiphons”.  The USCCB website has this nice introduction:

The Roman Church has been singing the “O” Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative “Come!” embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.

 

Two years ago I wrote reflections on each Antiphon.  I hope to do the same again this year by updating those reflections through the lens of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

May your blessed Advent continue. . . .

Gaudete

“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).

ADVENT REFLECTION

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