Thursday, December 23, 2010

With us: O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Salvation: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

One of our greatest fears is to become acutely aware that we are alone or abandoned--so much so that a currently popular form of punishment for children (usually spoken of as a form of "consequences, so as not to us the "p" word) is to give them a “time out:” a sanitized term meaning enforced aloneness. The Advent hymn “O heavenly Word, eternal Light,” has these words on the subject: “O let us not, for evil past, / be driven from thy face at last.” That is perhaps the "time out" all those who think on the level of love and eternity most fear.

Christianity knows that humans were created to live in communion with God the Holy Trinity, with each other, and with the Creation. Whenever there is a division among these, there is sin, death, and suffering.

The final Great O Antiphon calls upon God to come and save us in words both majestic (King, Lawgiver) and deeply personal (Desire, Emmanuel). Of these, the most poignant is Emmanuel: meaning God with us. In these words we are told what we all want most to hear, especially in moments of vulnerability and doubt: we are not alone. The long “time out” is over. The healing, the hoped-for but never really expected reunion, has come. In Christ, God has bridged the seemingly unbridgeable gap.

Each Christmas, we recall this did not happen by our efforts, by our “evolution” into brighter or wiser beings, or by our discovery of the magic formula to make things better. It came by a gift, uniquely given and unsought. It comes by God entering into our very midst, taking on our bodies and limitations and struggles. So unlikely was this that most people rejected the gift when it was offered.

And so it goes through history. Until the end of the ages, people will be faced with this choice: do we accept this gift or not? Whatever our answer, though, one thing remains: God is with us now. There is no going back. From the Nativity in Bethlehem to the Abandonment on the Cross, he has tasted the fruit of what it means for us to live apart; but he is faithful to the uniting will of the Father, and he has brought us back together with His Father. 

Now, we must learn to love and serve each other and the Creation around us—for these, too, are part of what it means for Christ to be Emmanuel: God with us. By living in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are bound to this communion of the Trinity, and acquire more and more deeply the Mind of Christ, as St. Paul calls it, by which we truly become people of Emmanuel. For the saints, God being with us is no longer a theory or a concept: it is a way of life. Our works of mercy and our life of prayer are all parts of that response to God's initiative, all part of what it means to receive the gift now given and be with the Giver.

May this Advent conclude by bringing us in humility, mercy, and wonder to the very doors of the stable, where with the Holy Family, the angels, the shepherds, the animals, and the Magi, we may kneel in awe before the Christ-child, giving wordless thanks that, finally, God is with us—and we are with Him.

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