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Emmanuel – God among us

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Advent has begun and in many gatherings in our churches we sing/hear the familiar hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emanuel.”  Beginning on December 17, the “O Antiphons” will be recited during the Liturgy of the Hours; December 23 features “O Emmanuel.” 

On one level the name Emmanuel can signal haunting melodies, Advent wreathes, winter’s arrival, and Christmas preparations. On another level the name Emmanuel can touch a different chord in us: longing for an experience of God in the midst of a troubled or hectic life, wondering if the haunting songs are meant to match the incongruity that if God has indeed come in Jesus, why is there still such injustice in our world?

The name Emmanuel means, literally, “with us,  God.” (The spelling Immanuel comes for the Hebrew; while the Emmanuel comes from the Greek translation.)  In Matthew’s gospel the first words of the angel to Joseph about the coming birth of Jesus conclude saying that Jesus’ birth fulfills the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord himself will give you a sign: a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, shall be named Emmanuel, which means ‘with us is God’ ” (7:14). At the time of Isaiah, the sign was to assure the King of Judah, Ahaz, that he need not fear the threat of invading armies of Syria, and the northern kingdom of Israel. God was on the side of Judah. Ahaz would have a son and the kingdom would continue. Since the early Christians proclaimed that God was “with us” in Jesus, the text of Isaiah was used to refer Jesus.

In the Hebrew scriptures the “with-you” language is often used also in accounts of the call and missioning of important figures, for example Moses and Jeremiah.  The call of Moses at the burning bush narrates God’s plan to rescue the Israelites from the Pharaoh and that Moses should go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”  Moses shrinks from this task and God answers “I am with you” (Exodus 3:4-12). 

When God called Jeremiah to be a “prophet to the nations,”  Jeremiah said that he was too young.  God replied: “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, or I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:4-8).

Yet, there is more to naming Jesus, Emmanuel.  The Hebrew word usually translated “with” can also be translated as “among, in midst of,” in the sense of companionship. This baby boy actually is God among us.   Moreover, the discourse of Jesus in Matthew 18:20 reads: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of (among) them.”

Finally, at the end of the gospel (28:19-20) the Risen Christ calls and commissions the eleven  followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”   The Risen Christ, using, commissioning language, promises not just to be with as in “on our side,” but among us.

Shortly the Advent songs will give way to joyful Christmas hymns and celebrations. Yet our longings for God’s presence will continue, the message still needs proclamation, the challenges remain. The eyes of faith recognize that, as our feet walk the ground in troubled times, the Risen Christ, Emmanuel, is among us – with us as we work together, as we pray together (no matter our religion), as we care for one another.

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