The last Evening Prayer of Advent is the context for this final ‘O’ Antiphon, O Emmanuel. When Evening Prayer comes round again, tomorrow, he will come. And that is the hidden message in these seven antiphons. Working backwards from today we have seven titles addressed to the coming baby: Emmanuel, Rex Gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonaï, and Sapientia. Taking the initial letter of each of these invocations yields the words ‘ero cras’, a couple of Latin words that mean ‘Tomorrow, I will come’.
And the identity of who it is that is coming is to be found in all those titles: the divine Word or Wisdom; the LORD, the ‘I AM’; a shoot sprung from the family tree of Jesse; the successor of David; a Light shining in the darkness; the true ruler of the world. And Emmanuel.
Emmanuel, or God-with-us, was a name used by Isaiah when he tells King Ahaz that the royal house of David will flourish despite the great danger that it faced from Damascus and Samaria. Isaiah foretells that before a child who is still in the womb is able to choose between right and wrong, the kings of Damascus and Samaria will fall, and the threat to Jerusalem will fall with it. Isaiah gives this unborn child the name ‘Immanuel’, a sign of hope in the future and trust in the divine will.
And Matthew, in his proclamation of the good news about Jesus, takes this message out of Isaiah and makes the parallel with Jesus’s birth, seeing it too as a sign of hope and trust in God, and of liberation from oppression and tyranny.
To us, the name Immanuel signifies even more. It tells us of the immanence of God: El in Hebrew, so we can make a pun and say that Immanu-el means the immanence of El — that God, the creator of the universe, lives among us, lives a human life, a humble human life, born to an ordinary family, in a far-off colonial outpost. God is not some remote cosmic being, and God is not some fickle pleasure-seeking divinity who masquerades in human form on occasion. No, this is a God who puts off the divine attributes to live within the limits of a human life and a human death. Here the human and the divine mingle in a way that poetry and theology are better at describing than science. And in a day or so’s time we shall be, as it were, witnesses to this mingling, this incarnation, as we celebrate the birth of that baby and ponder its meaning in our hearts.
O come, O come Emmanuel!