O Emmanuel | 23 December 2020

Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.

A perceptive reader once described today as the Holy Saturday of Advent. Our strength is exhausted. We have reached rock bottom. Only God can deal with the mess we are in, bring light to our darkness and save us. Accordingly, today’s antiphon piles title after title on God, to make sure we miss none that has a claim on him, but ends with something like a whimper: come and save us, Lord our God. And there you have it. All those grand titles tell us something about God, but only as he is in relation to us — God-with-us, our King, our Law-Giver, Desired of the Nations, Saviour — because that is how God chooses to reveal himself to us: not as a being apart from us (though of course he transcends us utterly), but as one with us, as one like us. That is why the prayer we make in this antiphon is deceptively simple. When everything else is stripped away, we can acknowledge our need of God in the starkest terms. Our broken humanity cries out to his divinity. For the first time we address him as our Lord and God, and our plea is direct and uncomplicated as prayer wrung from the heart always is: come and save us.

I think there is a second reason for seeing today as being like Holy Saturday. Many people ask where was God when a tragedy occurs. Why did Jesus have to die? How involved is he in human suffering? Why did he not prevent the deaths of those three policemen who died yesterday in France, for example? That is to ask a question of history, and can even reduce God to an interventionist fairy godmother. Instead we have to ask the much bigger question, where is God? Just as on Holy Saturday, we see only part of the picture and have to trust for the rest. God’s seeming inactivity is only our view of things. The Incarnation can be sentimentalised to the point of parody, but if we allow the wonder of what we celebrate to sink in, we learn something important about God and ourselves. We cannot fear God or think him unapproachable when we know that in Christ he has taken human flesh and blood and been born, just as we are, just as dependent as we are. He cannot undo that — he has bound himself to us for ever and is with us to the end of time. He is far from indifferent to human suffering. He shares with us our pain and loneliness and frustration at the way things are because he wills to be united with us, if we let him. To ask where is God, therefore, is to pray and enter into a relationship with him here and now. It is to allow God to be with us — surely his heart’s desire as well as ours.

For scripture, I suggest Isaiah 7.14, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66 and think about the illustration to this post: Lion of Judah or us complaining to God?


Our Need of God

As the poignant cadences of O Emmanuel die away in the darkness, we know we have reached the culmination of Advent. In that moment, we call on God to be with us as King and Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and our Salvation; the prayer we make is simple: save us! In effect, we have been brought to the point where we know our need of God, and the greater the need the starker the expression.

Sometimes we want a great many other things as well as God. We want success, security, someone to love and be loved by — all good things in themselves. The difficulty starts when we want these things more than God or rather, we want them in a way that isn’t quite as God intended. When we want success so that we can be comfortable and maybe show others how well we’ve done in life; security so that we don’t have to risk anything or trust God in any real sense; someone to love and be loved by for rather selfish ends (which, of course, is not truly love, but we often mistake possessiveness for love). Sooner or later, however, we shall have to face up to the question: do we want God in our lives or not; do we want to be saved or not.

We began the sequence of O antiphons by asking God for the gift of wisdom; we complete it by asking for God in himself, as he is. That reflects the rhythm of all prayer. We usually begin by asking for this gift or that. Only gradually do we come to see that there is only one gift to be asked for, and that it must be given in the way that God chooses. When he gives himself to us this Christmas, as a baby born in a troubled part of a great empire, member of a people despised by many, let us remember that that is how God willed to come among us and offer us salvation. Let us pray that our hearts and minds may open to embrace so great a gift.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail