Thursday, December 23, 2010

O Antiphons- O Emmanuel

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

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.

Welcome to the last of the O-Antiphons and, of course, the first verse of the hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The Catholic resources web page which I'm using for the texts and bible passages for this series is rather tart about this connection, commenting "since it [the hymn] is so popular, and some people might not even realize that it was Advent unless they heard this hymn" That is true, of course, although I have to admit that, before this series, I hadn't realized the change in order and, yes, I really don't feel like it is Advent until I've heard the hymn. Mind you, I've always been a sucker for melancholic chant or plain-son tunes, even before I was Christian, so I couldn't probably escape liking O Come, O Come Emmanuel. One of the unanticipated results of this series is that I have been forced to look beyond the hymn and at the O Antiphons which inspired it and whose order so neatly builds on each other that I have to wonder now why should we mess with the order?

This Antiphon introduces us to the figure of Emmunuel, who, like practically every image in the O Antiphons, begins with a prophecy of Isaiah. The context here is interesting because we see Isaiah forcing a prophecy on a notably reluctant King Ahaz of Judaea. Ahaz doesn't have a very good reputation in the biblical record. He rejected the worship of the God of Israel and Judaea, he sought the gods of other nations and was exceptionally unlucky in war, being defeated soundly by several of his neighbours (2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28). Yet, Isaiah's prophecy is here quite hopeful, if not for Ahaz, then, at least, for his soon to be born son:

"‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 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 Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’

On the basic historical level, this prophecy really is a prediction that Ahaz will have a successor whose enemies would soon be eliminated and who would live in a welcome, if unusual period of peace. On a basic level, this prediction would seem to refer to Hezekiah, Ahaz' much more faithful son, who escaped an Assyrian attempt to capture his capital (2 Kings 19, 2 Chronicles 32)and who was granted fifteen years longer life after a serious illness. Certainly, Hezekiah's reign was luckier than his fathers, but, when one really looks at this prediction, it is hard not to notice that the prophecy doesn't predict luck, but the suppression of Judaea's enemies and a revival in Judaea's power in much the same way as Isaiah's rather more spectacular predictions of God's peace returning to Israel that we have already discussed in connection to other Antiphons. Thus, it isn't surprising that latter readers of this prophecy began to wonder if this Emmanuel that Isaiah refers to had really come as Ahaz' son, Hezekiah, or whether we should still be awaiting him.
Given this question about the true coming of Emmanuel, we shouldn't be very surprised that, when the Biblical writers were thinking about the coming of another miraculous child, that they turned to this birth. Indeed, the Gospel of Matthew quotes this passage directly as being fulfilled in the birth of Christ: "Look,the virgin shall conceive and bear a son/ and they shall name him Emmanuel" (Matthew 1,23). There is, of course, a change in the description of Emmanuel-Jesus' mother which opens a pretty large can of theological worms; a can which I don't have the space, time or inclination to empty fully. There are excellent scientific, historical and linguistic reasons to doubt this wording, it is true, but, if we look at what Matthew thought, we find that he depicts the conception of Jesus as miraculous. Otherwise, we can't really explain why Joseph was so surprised and hurt by Mary's pregnancy that he assumed adultery and was about to divorce her quietly, when the angel of the Lord tells him where the conception really came from: the Holy Spirit (Matthew, 1, 18-24). If we don't presume a virgin birth, Jesus' birth doesn't make much sense nor does it make clear the divine hand in the conception. Yet, this debate over virgin birth isn't really the point of either the Gospel story or the Antiphon.

The real theme of this Antiphon is, as with all the other Antiphons, salvation. That is, Emmanuel- God is with us-is called upon to come and set us free. The hymn is even more descriptive, asking Emmanuel to save us from "lonely exile here". This connects with a theme of not being quite at home in the world we find ourselves in- a feeling that many people share whether they are religious or not. I see it everywhere from my students to friends and acquaintances and, yes, myself. I recall very clearly that sense, in my teenaged years and most of my twenties, of not quite being at home in my own skin or out among people and this is despite having a loving family and good friends in my life. There are many, many people who have even greater reason for feeling disconnected and cut off from those around them in this life. Nor have we worked out better ways to truly connect with each other in this Information Age. Our society, for all of its social networking sites and instant communication, remains a very disconnected one where one is constantly talking, but hardly ever making a connection. On some basic level, that sense of exile in the world not only has remained, but it has intensified as we hunker down in front of our computers and seek our connection in this ethereal world of computers, e-mail, blogging and Facebook. When we look up, we are often moved to ask "Where is the real connection? Where is home?"

What is different in my life these days, when I'm paying true attention to what is important in my life, is that, while I may recognize those feelings of exile, my faith in God gives me real hope that this exile will not continue forever and that I am, we are on the way back to our true home. This is, ultimately, what my faith is about: the belief that there is more to this world than the fragmented surface that we see everyday, that the brokenness that we find in our lives and in the world around us will be healed and we will become what God meant us to be. This is, I think, what we mean by a faith journey, a return to the God who created us, who is redeeming us and, ultimately, who will bring us back to a home we have barely heard about, but which we've been anticipating all our lives. The exciting (and sometimes terrifying) thing about this faith journey is that we are not making this journey alone. It is Jesus who guides us because He went this way before us. It is Jesus who helps us because He loves us. It is Jesus who refreshes us because He feeds us. Jesus is, in this sense, truly the Emmanuel- the God with us. And, in another sense, he is also the true Yeshua (Jesus)- the God (who) saves.

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

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