O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent we focus on the final antiphon in the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; the antiphon from which the hymn derives its name. Emmanuel: God is with us. It is an image taken from the 7th chapter of Isaiah and the historical setting is very important to understanding its meaning.
It is approximately 740 BC, Jerusalem is under siege, and the king – Ahaz – is in a panic. The Assyrians are threatening to invade the region and in response several of the local tribal leaders have formed an alliance. But Ahaz wants no part of this coalition and so the alliance attacks Jerusalem in hopes of putting a new king in place who will support their efforts. The prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz and tells him that God will deliver the besieged city. His message is a mixture of prophetic pronouncements and policy statements, sprinkled with symbolic promises or signs to back up what he says as being God’s word. Proper names play a very significant role in these symbolic promises.
In verse 3 of chapter 7, God directs Isaiah to take his son to meet King Ahaz. The boy’s name is Shear-Jashub, which means “a remnant will return.” The presence of the boy indicates the promise of God. Isaiah then says to Ahaz, “Ask for a sign from God to convince you that this is so” – a common thing for kings of that era to do, but Ahaz is too afraid. So Isaiah gives him a sign: “A young woman is with child and she will name her son Emmanuel. And before the boy is weaned from his mother’s milk, this military and political threat will have passed.” The message is clear: a year from now this will all be over and we will be fine. Why? We will be fine because Emmanuel: God is with us.
Over the next few centuries Isaiah’s words came to be associated with an emerging messianic hope; a deep yearning and desire among God’s people for one to be born in whom God would be powerfully present. At first it was a desire rooted in the restoration of David’s throne; a yearning for a kingdom marked by self-rule and justice. But very early on, Christians came to see that Isaiah’s words of prophetic hope had been fulfilled in Jesus; that He was the incarnation of God – Divinity manifested in flesh and blood… the literal embodiment of God with us.
And when we sing O come, O come, Emmanuel we are proclaiming our faith that God has been with us in the past, expressing our desire for God to be with us in the present, and giving voice to our deep yearning for God to come again and be with us in the fullness of Glory.
Maria Boulding was a Benedictine nun and noted author who died in 2009. I want to read a brief passage from her 1982 book The Coming of God because it beautifully and thoughtfully expresses how our hope for God’s presence makes us distinct from those who do not share in our faith:
If modern men and women are to be more than simply agnostic about the long-term prospects for our race, their most fundamental hope must be that it will not end in meaningless destruction. If we are going to blow ourselves out of existence as though we had never been, or make our planet uninhabitable without finding an alternative accommodation, there is little point in hoping for anything else…
The hope that we are traveling towards a destiny, rather than a mere collapse, is linked with the faith that our origins were already purposeful. If we think that our existence is a mere fluke, the result of some wildly improbable mix in some primordial soup that threw up the conditions required to sustain life, then our whole human story is a chance bubble; it has no purpose and can be pricked as meaninglessly as it was formed. But if there is a Creator who stands outside the whole cosmic evolutionary process, and yet works within it by a wisdom and love that are present in even the tiniest movement, then human life has a purpose. It begins from God and is on its way to a goal which, however unimaginable, will give meaning to the whole adventure.
At every Eucharist we say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Maria Boulding has helped me to understand the come again part in a whole new way. Knowing where we are going shapes what we do along the way. It gives us direction to act and confidence that our actions make a difference. We who yearn for Emmanuel to return at the end of time become open to Emmanuel being manifested in and through us today.
And that openness and willingness for God to be present in us is critical, as the writer Vishal Mangalwadi points out:
The tragedy of our times is that while many Christians have confidence in the power of the Lord to return and change the world, many of us do not have confidence in the power of the gospel to transform society now.
Many don’t, but some do. I have been reading a book called Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of New Friars. It is about an emerging movement among a small group of Protestant Evangelicals who are choosing to live and minister in the poorest slums in the world. One person describes a slum as an urban area “characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure.” If you saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire you have a sense of what these areas are like. The World Bank reports that one out of every six people on the planet lives in an urban slum – one billion people. Twenty years from now it will be one in four. The first friars embraced the notion of Emmanuel by setting aside home, wealth, and safety to live among people who did not know the Gospel and often times were hostile to it. The new friars are seeking to do much the same thing. What they offer is not so much a program or a handout… they offer themselves.
Craig and Nayhouy Greenfield are two of these new friars. They were living and ministering in a slum when she became pregnant with their second child. In that slum most mothers had succumbed to the notion that powdered milk was preferable to breast feeding. Nayhouy knew different since powdered milk required something not available in the slum… clean drinking water. Infant upon infant got sick and many died, still the local mothers held on to a bias against breast feeding. When Nayhouy’s baby was born it did not escape notice that the child – breastfed – grew up strong and healthy. The Greenfields write,
From that point on, the use of milk powder in our slum decreased. Through the simple, prophetic act of incarnational motherhood, we accomplished in our slum what poster campaigns, visiting educators and government campaigns had been unable to accomplish: transformation.
This is just one story of one couple in the new friars movement; a group of Christians who do not see themselves called to preach the Gospel to people in the slums, they see themselves called to live the Gospel in the slums. It reminds me of what the missionary Charles de Foucauld believed; he who sought to minister to Muslims some 100 years ago: “to witness to Christ does not require eloquent preaching or sanctimonious demands. It is requires you to shout the Gospel with your life.” It is an approach grounded in a theology of incarnation: if Jesus left heaven and relocated here to live with us, perhaps we best manifest Emmanuel by living with the people to whom we seek to minister.
Well, if living in a slum represents the far end of one spectrum of how we might choose to make Emmanuel present in and through us, there is a YouTube video that represents the other end. Perhaps you are one of nearly 23 million people who have already viewed it. It is a scene which unfolded a month ago in a food court at a typical suburban mall. Shoppers of all walks and descriptions of life are sitting around chatting and eating. Suddenly and without warning, a young woman talking on a cell phone rises from her chair and begins to sing the opening stanza of the Alleluia Chorus. Mall patrons begin to stare at her. Then a man in his thirties dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt stands and sings the second stanza… Alleluia! Alleluia! Two people walking on the perimeter of the food court stop, partner with a member of the mall’s custodial staff, and sing in unison, “for the Lord God and King reigneth.” Now dozens of people rise to their feet in join in song. It is a planned phenomena know as a flashmob and before the Alleluia Chorus is finished dozens and dozens of choristers have joined in while unsuspecting shoppers look on.
What impresses me about the video is the location. Here, in the most secular of settings our society has to offer, God becomes present as glory and praise are offered. As I watched the video I thought about how we tend to cage God inside the stonewalls of our magnificent churches. We neither expect nor desire to encounter Emmanuel in those places where we are about the mechanics of life: stores, offices, schools, sporting events, the living room, the kitchen. When we want God we will go to the place where we have consigned God to be found. Everywhere else… well, in all those other places we have other things on our mind. The video challenged me to imagine a world were God could be with us in every aspect of our daily life and work; to take seriously what we pray: “Almighty God, in you we live and move and have our being.”
Well, somewhere on the spectrum between relocating into an urban slum and rising up in a food court to sing the Alleluia Chorus you and I have the opportunity to be incarnational… to invite God to be with us and to be know through us. You and I can shout out the Gospel with our lives and become part of God’s great purpose of drawing all things into Holiness and Majesty.
We have spent these last four weeks focusing on our deep desire and yearning, on our discontent that God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. God hears our cry and promises that a new world is on the way. As an assurance that this is so, God gives us a sign, an ancient sign from long ago. A young woman is about to give birth to a son and his name will be Emmanuel.