Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Emmanuel

Today’s readings

O 7emmanuelHow often have you wondered why God allows this or that calamity to happen, or why God hasn’t put an end to one injustice or another? When you’re in the thick of frustration, or even sorrow, do you question why a loving God wouldn’t put an end to all of that? Do you question whether God really loves you at all? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t wondered about that kind of thing at one time or another in their lives. On Friday, we had the funeral of a man who died suddenly, at a relatively early age, this close to Christmas. I have no idea how that kind of thing gets to be part of God’s plan. I really don’t. Making sense of the frustration, tragedy, and sadness in our lives is a gift that I’m not sure anyone really has. Some people can handle difficult times better than others, but the real understanding of pain is something that I think is in some ways beyond us.

So what keeps us going day after day? Pope Benedict gives us a hint at what’s needed in his encyclical, Spe Salvi: “Let us say once again:” he tells us, “we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 31). The greater and lesser hopes to which he refers are the things we think of when we are grasping for hope. A smile from a four-year old, a hug from a friend, getting a project finished, a word of encouragement from a coworker, that kind of thing. Those might be what he calls “lesser” hopes, they are the kind of thing for which my grandmother used to say, “Thank God for small favors!”

The “greater” hopes he’s talking about might be the knowledge that something we worked long and hard on made a difference to a person, or to a community, or even to those we work with. Maybe it’s the favorable diagnosis, or the resolution of a problem. It could even be reconciliation with a loved one. But Pope Benedict acknowledges that sometimes even these are not enough and only one kind of hope can ever be enough to bring us into the kingdom. He says, “But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain” (Spe Salvi, 31).

This is the kind of hope that Ahaz needed in our first reading. In that day, Jerusalem was being attacked by Rezah and Pekah, kings of neighboring nations. They were not successful, but the feeling was it would only be a matter of time before Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, fell to their oppressors. Isaiah, in our reading today, is trying to calm Ahaz with the knowledge that God is in control. He invites Ahaz to ask God for anything his heart desires. But Ahaz refuses. Rather than open himself up to the peace that God has in store for him, and cling to the hope God offers, he prefers to cloak himself in false humility and take care of things on his own.

But this is not to be. Frustrated, Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign: a virgin would conceive and bear a son who was to be named Emmanuel, a name that the Gospels tell us means “God is with us.” Which is incredibly good news for Ahaz, because with all that Jerusalem was going through, it had to seem like they were on their own. But that was never the case, God was with them and promised them salvation from their enemies. Now that’s the kind of great hope that Pope Benedict is talking about.

In these later days of Advent, we are given the many names of our Savior. Today we hear that he is to be named Jesus. And the original hearers of this story would have realized what that meant. But for us who don’t speak Hebrew, Scripture scholars tell us that the name “Jesus” means “The LORD is Salvation.” Jesus, our Emmanuel, our God with us, is the one for whom we have longed from the beginning of the world, into Isaiah and Ahaz’s time, even up to our own day.

There’s a wonderful tradition in the Church that in the latest days of Advent, we meditate on what’s called the “O Antiphons.” There is one of these “O Antiphons” for each day starting on the 17th of December. The antiphons are prayed at Vespers, or Evening Prayer each day, and they are part also of the great hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that we will sing at the Offertory today. When we sing it, I invite you to meditate on the words and hear in them the many ways in which Jesus is our Salvation.

On Monday, the antiphon was “O Wisdom,” and we reflected on the fact that it is only through God’s wisdom that we could come to salvation. Tuesday was “O Sacred Lord,” and we heard that our Lord once appeared to Moses in the burning bush, extending his hand to bring his people salvation. Wednesday was “O Root of Jesse,” which called on the Lord to extend his roots into the depths of hell and the grave to bring his people everlasting life. Thursday was “O Key of David,” the one who could unlock the many barriers that are between us and God. Friday was “O Radiant Dawn,” the coming of the One who brings light to our darkness. Yesterday was “O King of all the Nations,” because our Lord is the fulfillment of every need and desire universally. Today is the last of these “O Antiphons” and today we sing “O Emmanuel” – God with us – be present to us now and give us your grace and courage.

So, will Emmanuel take away all of our frustrations, sadness and pain? Well maybe not now. But one day, when the time is right, and everything is brought back to the One who made it in the first place. Until then, we may have suffering, but we will also and always have hope in Jesus our Emmanuel, our God with us, in good times and in bad, in this day and every day to come. We can cling to this hope because our God is not just any god as Pope Benedict points out, but “the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect” (Spe Salvi, 31).

So we can let our hopes be outrageous, deep as the netherworld and high as the sky. Because we have our Jesus, our God who is salvation, our Emmanuel, God with us, who longs to reach out to us and bring our greatest hopes to fulfillment. “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God” (Vespers, December 23).