O Emmanuel

"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel."

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”

O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and Salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

The last of the O Antiphons is O Emmanuel. Along with O Adonai, the title Emmanuel is usually left untranslated in the English renderings of the antiphons. Since the meanings of these two titles are so well known in the Church they are left in their original Hebrew, retaining, that way, some of their potency to transmit that certain quality of a thing that only proper names can communicate. As we’ve already seen, Adonai is the Lord who rescued the Hebrews from slavery and formed a special relationship with them. Emmanuel, as we will now see, is God with us.

The first the world heard of Emmanuel was in Isaiah’s book, the seventh chapter and fourteenth verse: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel.” This prophecy was spoken over Jerusalem when two armies had gathered to overthrow it, and the promise was that these two armies and their two nations would come to nothing before this promised son was old enough to choose good over evil. Incidentally, this did come to pass, and much more history besides, before this promised son was even born. What was a passing word of comfort on the eve of battle to Jerusalem at the time would prove to be the brightest heralding of the greatest miracle of all time — a word of profound comfort not just for Jerusalem, but for the whole world.

Hundreds of years later, a righteous man named Joseph was about to quietly divorce his betrothed wife, because he discovered that she had become pregnant. “But as he considered these things,” recounts St. Matthew in his gospel, “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.'” Matthew lets his readers know that this was in direct fulfillment of that prophecy in Isaiah about Emmanuel, which, he notes parenthetically, means God with us (Matt 1:18-25).

The angel told Mary and Joseph they were to name the child Jesus, which is the same name (though translated differently in our English scriptures) as Joshua, the Old Testament figure who led the Hebrews across the Jordan River and into the promised land. This was because “he will save his people from their sins,” as the angel stated. But what about the name “Emmanuel”? Christian reflection on Jesus and his life after his resurrection and ascension, guided by the newly indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, recognized Jesus as God incarnate. But this was not immediately obvious to his followers and those that knew him. Jesus was, as Christian reflection also affirmed, fully human after all. Only in St. Peter’s bright, quick flash of a confession, “You are the Son of the Living God”, and St. Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God“, do we see any kind of explicit notion that Jesus the man is also God in the synoptic gospels. St. John’s gospel, written decades after the other three and often called the “theological gospel”, makes it clear from the beginning, however, who Jesus the man truly is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1,14).

But it’s not that the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) never reach the conclusion that Jesus is God just because they don’t articulate it like John. They demonstrate this confession through the intentionally chosen stories that they tell. Over and over again they show the Jews and their leaders wondering if Jesus is the expected messiah (a figure never conceived of as being God incarnate), and discovering a man who frustrates their preconceptions and yet who is irreproachable in all his actions. In story after story, the gospel writers highlight Jesus as both messiah and God-with-us. For example, Matthew describes John the Baptist as the one Isaiah foretold of who would “prepare the way of the Lord.” The “Lord” Isaiah referred to was the God of Israel, and the one for whom John the Baptist was preparing the way was Jesus. The inference is clear. And immediately after Jesus is baptized by John, Matthew describes the voice of God, heard by all there present, identifying Jesus as his Son.

Other examples of Jesus being identified as God, even if not in those explicit terms, abound. The way Jesus’ sermon on the mount is described is in the terms of the giving of the Law at Sinai by God: from a mountain he pronounced proscriptions for living to the people who, in astonishment, recognized his authority was not like their other teachers’. Jesus re-appropriated rabbinic sayings about the presence of God — like, “If two sit and share words of Torah between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Mishna Avot 3:3) — and made them about himself — “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matt 18:20). The gospel writers record examples of Jesus explicitly forgiving people’s sins (Lk 7:48) — something done only by God. Jesus said and did other things that suggested he, not the Temple in Jerusalem, was where the divine presence was to be found, speaking even of himself as the Temple which would be “destroyed and rebuilt in three days”. John, of course, gives the theological explanation that he was referring to the Temple of his body (Jn 2:19), but Matthew and Mark merely quote the saying (Matt 26:61, 27:40; Mk 15:29). And of course the entire narrative of the Transfiguration is highly revelatory of the divinity of Jesus, but described in the gospels in terms of perception and experience, not dogmatics or theology. (Interestingly, John’s gospel omits the Transfiguration account, replacing it instead with the raising of Lazarus).

The point is that even the synoptic gospels by Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe Jesus as both Yeshua — who would save the people — and Emmanuel — God with us. The gospels also show us, as the antiphon states, a King, a lawgiver, and the longing of the Gentiles. The “King of the Jews”, as the sign on his cross read, was vindicated and raised up from the grave. The lawgiver speaks from the mount the words of life, and is adamantly endorsed by his Father’s voice: “This is my Son; listen to him” (Matt 3:17, 17:5; Mk 9:7; Lk 9:35). The longing of the Gentiles was sought after by wise men from the orient (Mattt 2:1-2) and by Romans (Mt 8:5-6).

This final O Antiphon for the season of Advent brings us to the single most profound and powerful mystery in the history of this world or any world — the Incarnation of God — by calling on Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us, to come and show himself truly to be with us, and to save us. God spanned the gap that we couldn’t span, but he has given us the dignity of the choice to receive him. God is truly with us, but are we with him? We have to take up this prayer and make it our own. We have to pray “Come and save us” for Emmanuel to be to each of us God-with-us.

Other O Antiphons

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