One of the best known Advent hymns is undoubtedly O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This popular hymn is based on a 12th century Latin hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel which in turn incorporates the 8th century so-called “O-antiphons.” These antiphons were and still are sung during Vespers or Evening Prayer, one per day from December 17 through December 23.
Each of the antiphons begins with the acclamation “O,” hence their name, followed by a messianic title inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures and applied to Christ such as “O Wisdom from on High” and “O Key of David.” Together, these seven antiphons illuminate the many qualities of the Messiah we await and celebrate.
The last antiphon which we sing on December 23 addresses Jesus with the title “Emmanuel.” The word Emmanuel is derived from the Hebrew language meaning “God with us.” This is truly the essence of who we, as Christians, believe God to be: “with us.”
Too often we are tempted to relegate God to far off places. Imagining God in a magnificent setting of heaven is in a way a very safe approach. The further God is removed from us the easier it is for us to ignore God. Some people could not be more content than to offer prayers and burn incense to a far away God in the certain hope that God indeed stays far away.
Things are very different when we believe and proclaim that God is “with us” because there is no way we can avoid or ignore God “with us.”
We experience that God is truly with us most especially during the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Pope Paul VI identified 4 ways in which Christ is present in the Eucharist: in the gathered assembly, in the celebrant, in the Word proclaimed and in the Bread broken and Wine shared.
It is very important for us to experience this on a regular basis because as we learn how to recognize Christ in the Eucharist, we also learn to embrace that God is with us outside of the Eucharist in one another.
Advent and Christmas are clear reminders that our God is not content with being far removed from us. On the contrary by being born as the son of Mary, God chose to be “with is,” not far off but near by.
Theologically speaking, Advent is the affirmation of the three manifestations of God among us: in the past, some 2000 years ago when Jesus was born; in the present as we recognize God at work here and now; and in the future as Christ will return at the end of time to complete the messianic promise.
This Advent I invite us not to focus on the past and future manifestations of God in Christ, but rather to focus on the present and to open our heart and soul to God among us, here and now.
Sometimes it is not easy to accept that God is with us, especially when we face all the pain and evil that confronts so many people on a daily basis with no relief in sight. Where is God in all of this we might ask ourselves? The answer is quite simple: God is in the midst of it all, rejoicing with us and mourning with us.
Our God is not the kind of God who holds the strings to our history as if we were mere marionettes or puppets in a divine comedy or tragedy. Rather, our God is with us, accompanying us in the worst of times and in the best of times, helping us to face everything that comes our way either as a result of our choices, both good and bad or as the result choices made by others.
Moreover, God is not just a passive presence; rather God is with us as our guide and moral compass. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we find the blue print for how God wants us to live and interact with one another and with our planet.
It is also important to remember that Emmanuel does not mean “God with me” but rather “God with us.” It is God who binds us all together as we journey toward the fulfilment of the messianic promise when all will be as God had hoped it to be from before the beginning of time.
So, when we sing “O Come, Emmanuel” let us take to heart that God is with us and together let us recognize and celebrate God in our midst, here and now.