- 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.
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).
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).
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!