O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God (Christian Prayer, 136).
Since the very beginning of the Advent Season, the Church has led us to pray for freedom, to pray for salvation. This is especially obvious in the Responsories used during Her Evening Prayer. On Sundays, we prayed: “Lord, show us your mercy and love; And grant us your salvation, your mercy and love” (Christian Prayer, Responsory, Evening Prayer I, First Sunday of Advent, 41). On weekdays, another Responsory was used: “Come and set us free, Lord God of power and might; Let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved, Lord God of power and might” (Christian Prayer, Responsory, Monday of the First Week of Advent, 49). The two Responsories are complementary in many ways, making us aware of the situation we find ourselves in and the only remedy for it.
Together they pray to God for salvation: “grant us your salvation” and “let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.” The second of the two Responsories tells us something of the situation we find ourselves in. We find ourselves in bondage, a state of slavery, and thus we call out, “come and set us free.” Moreover, this situation would seem to be quite dire, for we address God as a God of “power and might.” With this it becomes clear that the prayer we utter, this call to God, is rightly understood as cri de coeur, a cry of the heart. The first fills out the picture for us while simultaneously indicating the solution for our situation. “Lord, show us your mercy and love.” To ask for the mercy of God implies two things. First, the prayer acknowledges that an offense has been committed. Moreover, it is an offense that would seem to have no remedy aside from being shown this mercy. Thus, to be granted this mercy is the solution for the situation we are in, for in being granted the Mercy of God, we are likewise granted the Love of God. Therefore, we now see that the offense that has been committed is relational in nature. Whatever it is that we have done has led us to the dire situation of being estranged from God.
Today’s “O Antiphon” is perhaps the most familiar to us of all the great “O Antiphons” of Advent. And this because it very closely resembles the well-known song frequently sung throughout the Advent Season in the Church’s Liturgies: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Calling to mind this song is helpful for helping us understand today’s “O Antiphon” as well, for it adds something to the description of our situation. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here…” I wonder, out of all the times we have sung this song, if we have really understood what it is that we are doing? In singing these words, do we think that we are simply recalling past events? No. We are rather singing of ourselves. Set us free, O God of Mercy, for we are have been enslaved in captivity, exiled from your presence, let your face shine upon us for this is the only way that we shall be saved! How many times over the course of the past four weeks did we realize this? Over the course of Advent, have thought of ourselves in captivity? Do we feel as though we are experiencing an exile of some sort? How many times over the course of this Advent Season have we felt in desperate need of a Savior, as these prayers suggest we are? The thing about Christmas is that if we haven’t recognized our need for salvation, there really isn’t much to celebrate on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas simply makes no sense at all if we don’t need a Savior.
The cry for Emmanuel to come to us in today’s “O Antiphon” is, once again, rooted in a Scriptural passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The passage is situated within the time frame of the Syro-Ephraimite war of 735-732 BC. During this time, the nations of Syria and the Northern Tribes of Israel (Ephraim its main tribe) had established a multi-nation alliance in the hopes of fending off an invasion by the nation of Assyria, and the two nations wanted to add the Kingdom of Judah to their alliance (see 2 Kings 16). When Ahaz, King of Judah at the time, refused to enter the alliance, Syria and Israel (Ephraim) laid siege to Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:5-6 & Isaiah 7:1). Initially, Judah was able to fend off the attack, but the King and the people doubted that they could hold out for long, and “the heart of the king and heart of the people trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). It is then that the Lord sent the Prophet Isaiah with this message for Ahaz:
Take care you remain calm and do not fear; do not let your courage fail before these two stumps of smoldering brands…They say, “Let us go up against Judah, tear it apart, make it our own by force…Thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand…Within sixty-five years, Ephraim shall be crushed, no longer a nation. Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm! (Isaiah 7:4, 5b-6, 7 & 9).
Here God promises to preserve the Kingdom of Judah if the people and its king remain steadfast in their faith. Evidently, King Ahaz had trouble putting the safety of his kingdom and, more to it, his own safety in the hands of a God he could not see and only speak to through His prophet. Accordingly, God sends Isaiah back to Ahaz to tell him to “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God: let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky!” (Isaiah 7:11). God’s message here has something to tell us about His desires for us. To ask for a sign that is “as deep as Sheol or as high as the sky” would be to ask for an extraordinary miraculous sign. This is tantamount to God saying, ‘Ask for something outrageous, and no matter how outrageous it is, I will fulfill it, for regardless of what is, it is nothing compared to what I am willing to do for you.’
But despite God’s show of good will to Ahaz through the Prophet, Ahaz demurs, feigning reverence: “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” (Isaiah 7:12). That Ahaz’s reverence is not authentic is evidenced in the response of the Prophet: “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God?” (Isaiah 7:13). Then, knowing that Ahaz has already turned his gaze away from God and placed his hopes in another source, God promises a sign of His loving-kindness, His mercy that will be unmistakable: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Emmanuel, as Matthew translates for us, means “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23).
With regards to the prophecy, many Scripture scholars will point to the fact that the Hebrew word translated here as virgin is the word almah, which simply means a young woman of a marriageable age, and that it is only in the later Greek translation which gives it the potential meaning of virgin by translating almah as parthenos. Rather than predicting the conception of Christ in Mary, some suggest, the prophecy refers to one of Isaiah’s children, who are mentioned in the following chapter. There may be some truth to this. For, in chapter 8 Isaiah tells his listeners that he “and the children whom the Lord has given [him]” are “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:18). But what, precisely, we must ask, were Isaiah and his children signs of? Of the very same promise that God had given to Ahaz, that those who trust in the Lord, have faith in the Lord and wait for him will not be overcome by the wicked and unjust, but that those who turn away from the Lord, the Lord will send “down with the evildoers” (Psalm 125:5; cf. Isaiah 8:17).
Just prior to saying this, Isaiah had made it obvious that many had questioned the prophecy and sign God had given Ahaz through him. In fact, King Ahaz was never really in a position to receive the sign God desired to give him. For, facing the demise of the Kingdom of Judah, and more importantly for Ahaz, his rule and the power that he enjoyed in that kingdom, he looked for a savior elsewhere. Specifically, in the kingdom of Assyria, forging an alliance with them in order to survive the attack from Syria and Israel. The words king Ahaz sends to the King of Assyria have much to teach us, let us listen: “Ahaz sent messengers to…the king of Assyria, with the plea: ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the power of the king of Aram [Syria] and the king of Israel, who are attacking me’” (2 Kings 16:7). This message indicates the deep perversion of the relationship Ahaz was to have with God, for this is precisely the relationship God promised to have with the kings of the Davidic line. To David God had promised regarding his son Solomon:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. If he does wrong, I will reprove him with a human rod and with human punishments; but I will not withdraw my favor from him…Your house and your kingdom are firm forever before me; your throne shall be firmly established forever (2 Samuel 7:14).
Ahaz effectively renounced his divine sonship as a king in David’s line when he pledged his filial piety to the King of Assyria. The sign of this was that whereas Solomon built the First Temple and beautifully adorned it out of the love and filial piety for God (1 Kings 6-7), Ahaz stripped that same temple, taking “the silver and gold that were in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house and sent them as a present to the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 16:8). In doing so, Ahaz too, together with the whole country of Judah, became a sign. For, by entering into an alliance with Assyria, Judah lost its freedom and became a vassal state, subservient to the Assyrian king. And even in this God remained a faithful Father. For, through these circumstances, God disciplined Judah by the hand of the Assyrian king as ‘the rod of his wrath,’ Isaiah tells us (Isaiah 10:5), just as He had promised to do for David’s sons, using the same language as we have already seen above (2 Samuel 7:14, “I will reprove him with a human rod”).
To recount all of this is far more than a mere history lesson, it is a threefold spiritual lesson. The first thing it teaches us is that “if we are unfaithful, [God] remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). Thus, even while Judah pursued a path that strayed further and further from God, their temporal situation worsened. From vassal state to Assyrian they were destroyed by the Kingdom of Babylon in 586 BC and exiled. And still God remained faithful. He returned them to their land in 538 BC through the hand of King Cyrus of Persia, who he referred to as “His anointed one” (Isaiah 45:1), i.e., His christos, as a sign of the still greater things He had in store for His People. For in the fullness of time, He sent His Son, born of the Virgin, anointed not with oil but by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38), the true Christos who fulfills and gives meaning to all of the signs discussed today as well as to the titles we have discussed in our reflections on the great “O Antiphons” of Advent. With His birth, it is most truly said, Emmanuel, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). And in the Passion, death, and Resurrection of His Son, Yeshua, Jesus, we finally see how “God saves” His People (Yeshua means he saves in Hebrew), He saves through complete self-giving love.
However, the only way to experience this Love is to remain open to It and faithful to It. To quote St. Paul again, “if we deny him he will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12b). We have seen this truth exemplified through the life of King Ahaz. By turning His back on God and pledging his love to another, Ahaz lost his own freedom and led others down the very same path to such an extent that eventually, the entire Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, and sent into exile. This is the second lesson today’s “O Antiphon” has led us to. We have the very same power Ahaz has. For we, too, by the way we live our lives have the power to lead others astray from God. And here we come back to our original question: do we feel ourselves far from home, in a land of exile and in need of a Savior? Ahaz had the historical benefit of not being able to avoid this realization, but do we realize it? We may not have charge over a kingdom, and we may not have threatening nations knocking at our door. Yet, we collectively and individually have been given charge over the very dwelling place of God, our souls and our Church (see 1 Corinthians 6:19 & Ephesians 2:22). And we constantly have a multitude of temptations knocking at our door, temptations to wealth, pleasure and power (however great or small), threatening to enter with a deadly gang of seven to deprive of us our freedom and enslave us to a life of vice and sin.
Yet, Isaiah has shown us another way, “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11-12a). In the face of naysayers and persecutors, Isaiah remained faithful to God, and his whole identity became transfigured. As one of the greatest of God’s prophets, Isaiah has become fully identified with inspired Scripture, such that when one says Isaiah, one cannot help but think of God’s Word. This is the path Emmanuel comes to open up for us in ever ancient and ever new ways. For, as God with us, He promises to be a sure defense against any persecutor, against any temptation, against any naysayers we may encounter in this valley of tears while we are away from our eternal Homeland (2 Corinthians 5:6-8 & 1 Peter 2:11). If we remain steadfastly faithful to the Love of our God as Isaiah did, we too, from day to day will become transfigured, such that by God’s grace together with Paul we will be able to say: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:19b-20).
To live in such a way is to express our filial piety to God (2 Corinthians 6:18), letting His light shine before all nations so that they may see our works and give glory to our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16). To live in such a way is to, like Isaiah and his family, live as a sign to the world that God is with us, at work in the world through the members of His Son’s Body, for the Salvation of all, until the end of the age, just as He promised (Matthew 28:20).
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.