O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Our family is a ‘sit at the table together’ family. As Lutheran Christians, we own the fact that we are often thought of as the family of Christians ‘prone to excessive singing,’ as one Episcopalian wag put it. And our family is no exception. Rarely a day goes by that we don’t join in song at breakfast and dinner, giving thanks to God for good gifts and recalling our connection and duty to those who scrap by with little or nothing. We have small candelabra over the table, filled with four blue candles this time of year. As we light the candles we sing out together our Advent anthem, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Early in life (by age 5 or so) our children had the verse down and considered its singing as synonymous as the arrival of weekly gifts from the Advent Bunny (not a Lutheran innovation, I assure you, but only further evidence of our love of the season and of the grandmother whose work the A.B. is—and you, dear reader, are sworn to secrecy on that).
We love all sorts of versions of the classic hymn setting of the O Antiphons by John Mason Neale. However, lately I’ve been drawn to versions that are completely fresh but harkens back to the simplicity of the ancient chant forms. An example is the Michigan singer Sufjan Stevens whose version is sparely set with banjo, flute, and a very melancholy voice. These influence how we sing the song around the table. Yet for the sake of young children, we’ve not shifted to working through all the antiphons. After working on this series, that will change next year! Furthermore, working on this series has brought to awareness how odd it is that in the sung versions following Neale’s version, O Emmanuel begins and ends the series. Actually, the O Antiphons begin with O Sapientia [O Wisdom] and end seven days later with O Emmanuel [O God-With-Us].
Witness of Isaiah
The most obvious background text for this antiphon is Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call him Immanuel.” While the text in Isaiah is by most accounts difficult to interpret, its use in Matthew’s gospel is much less oblique. Matthew writes in 1:23 that “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).” It was a novel innovation in the history of God that the Holy one would become human, live out the full stretch of living, suffer and die with and for us. Only such suffering and dying could not be the last word for a God whose promise is sure; no, resurrection had to follow a first installment of the renewal of all creation.
This first installment of hope for the renewal of all creation is launched by the keeping of this series of antiphons. In a wonderful fit of humor and clarity, early Benedictine monks set the antiphons so that if one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” And that tomorrow, dear friends, is Christmas eve, the eve of angels and shepherds, of singing Gloria and receiving good news of great joy. May that promise – ero cras – be your hope and promise this Christmas.