Ministry in Context

Director's Word: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

A Family Practice

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 branch of Christians ‘prone to excessive singing,’ as one Episcopalian friend puts 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 on 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 memorized 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 versions influence how we sing the song around the table. For the sake of young children, we’ve never shifted to working through all the antiphons. However, with teens now around the table with us, I think that will change next year!

Witness of Isaiah

The most obvious background text for the Emanuel 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 as a first installment of the renewal and redemption of all creation.

Acrostic

The deep reason for hope for the renewal of all creation emerges day by day in the singing of the O Antiphons. According to tradition, they are sung in daily prayer, one each day, beginning on December 17. 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 Gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, 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.

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