O Emmanuel “O God with us, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.”
This Antiphon is probably the most familiar to us because of the traditional Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This hymn, in its original Latin, dates from the 12th century. The carol is actually based upon the O Antiphons, but moves the O Emmanuel Antiphon into first place, instead of last, as it should be. This is probably to emphasize the imminence of God.
For Israel God was imminent, in the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), in the pillars of fire (Exodus 13:21) that led the Israelites out of Egypt, in the tent of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 40:34), and in the Temple (1 Kings 8:1-11), God’s imminence was very much part of the prophetic tradition which constantly confronted Israel with God’s word.
Classical prophets of the Old Testament were aware that their oracles were from God. They also knew that they were admonitions, threats or promises which addressed an immediate contemporary situation. What they were unaware of was that in addition to the immediate situation, their utterance might have a higher “Messianic” level which would only become clear at some future time.
Such was the case with the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah which was addressed to King Ahaz of Judah who was reluctant to seek divine guidance that he might not want to heed.
“Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel.”
At Isaiah’s contemporary level, who was Emmanuel and who was the woman to whom he was born? We do not know. Biblical exegetes (scholars) have theorized but without agreement. Pope Benedict XVI in his book on the infancy narratives published in English earlier this month thoroughly reviewed the scholarship on the question and concludes that “it is a word in waiting…not merely addressed to Ahaz. Nor is it merely addressed to Israel. It is addressed to humanity.” It does not concern a specific political situation “but the whole history of humanity.”
Indeed it is in exactly that context that Matthew quotes the incident. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23)
Once again the God-with-us theme is picked up by John in the ancient hymn with which he begins his Gospel. “…and the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us,” (John 1:14) which in the original Greek read “pitched his tent among us,” echoing Exodus 40:34 above. Of course Jesus’ presence par-excellence among us is in the Eucharist which John addresses so beautifully in his sixth chapter. “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.”
We are Emmanuel people. We are the Body of Christ, the sacrament of Emmanuel.