'O Emmanuel, our King and our judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour: come and save us, Lord our God.'
"For days and days now we have put ourselves with those patriarchs and prophets who for long centuries desired to see and hear what was neither seen nor heard until that night in the cave at Bethlehem, that night in which the hopes and fears of all the years were gathered together in royal David's city. We sat with them in darkness and in the shadow of death, in the recognition of our common humanity. We like they are formed from the dust of the earth, and we shall return to dust exactly as they have. We have remembered as they remembered how the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law of Sinai. And now, taught to hope by Isaiah, we pray to the one whom he prophesied, calling out in the words of the antiphon, O Emmanuel.
The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel, God-with-us. If we are really going to be saved, it can be by none other than God himself. The patriarchs and prophets had always known that, even though they never guessed that God himself would become altogether one of us and never imagined that he would be 'with us' in such an astonishing and paradoxical fashion. Yet how could the Saviour God not be Emmanuel when the first time that Israel had been saved it had been the Lord himself that had done it? Year by year, as the story of the Exodus from Egypt was recounted at Passover they would come to the verse: 'And the Lord brought us out of Egypt'. On this text the gloss ran: 'Not by any intermediary, not by any seraph, not by any messenger, but God himself in his glory, the Holy One, blessed be he'. The second deliverance could not be any less marvellous than the first, that exodus from Egypt's land. So they prayed for Emmanuel to come, even though it was not a man they longed to see, nor human accents they longed to hear.
When we pray for Emmanuel to come, we pray as people who know how God is with us so much that he is one of us. We pray knowing the wonder of it all, knowing that he has already come in such a way that there is no going back on that coming. He has become a man so as never more to be unmanned. So much of the prophesy is already fulfilled. The Virgin Israel in the person of the Virgin Mary has brought forth her Son. She will never bring him forth in that way again. History is irreversible. There can be no question of Jesus being born a second time in the way he was born in Bethlehem, just as there can be no question of his being killed a second time as he was killed on Calvary. From now on for all eternity there is a man on the throne of God, a man nearest to the Father's heart. The incarnation is not reversible by any eventuality. And so his coming to be Emmanuel is not something that we can pray for now; we can pray to him as Emmanuel, but not pray for him to become Emmanuel. The fact that he is Emmanuel is not something to pray for but to rejoice in. Above all we rejoice in it in the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament. In the Mass we plead Christ's death before the Father, acknowledging his resurrection and awaiting his return. But for centuries in the Church there has been the custom of reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass, not simply for the purpose of giving communion to the sick and dying but for its own sake. The Blessed Sacrament is there so that we can rejoice in the presence of the Lord amongst us for its own sake. He is glad to be amongst us, eternal Wisdom delighting to dwell with the sons of men, the Word that was made flesh and tabernacled amongst us. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament should be primarily the prayer of rejoicing, of saying how good it is for us to be there. His presence is the summing up of all the mighty works of God for us and for our salvation. In the sacred mysteries of his body and blood is the memorial of all the great acts of God in the past. We can sing psalms of thanksgiving for them as we sing in delight of the eucharistic presence. 'He gives bread to all living things', wrote the psalmist, 'great is his love, love without end.' Little did the sweet singer of Israel guess what that bread would be, and how he would give the true and living Bread, the body of eternal Wisdom, the Sun of Righteousness, Emmanuel. But we, knowing what that Bread is, can rejoice in the real presence of all his mighty works summed up in the most mighty work of his love, the incarnation of his Word. And then, when we have rejoiced, we can surely pray for all the needs of the world to the God and Father of us all... asking him to complete his work for us men and for our salvation. Or, to put it another way, we can pray to Emmanuel to come and answer all our longings.
We pray to Emmanuel who is our King, the King who makes us kings. But the antiphons get more intimate and more insistent, as befits our praying to someone who is one of ourselves. 'Our king and our judge... come and save us!' There is a paradox in this, because the way our King will us is by coming and giving us more of his law as our Judge. St Thomas puts the question as to the identity of this new law of Christ. And he replies that it can only be the grace of the Spirit himself. What the Lord demands of us he gives us. The love of God, the ove which God has for us, has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given us. We will know what the love Jesus commands at the Last Supper is like when we learn how to let the Lord love in us. We shall find that out when we abandon our attempts to force ourselves to love other people and instead let the Lord love them through us by pouring the Holy Spirit, the law of the New Testament into our hearts. Emmanuel as man, as our King has more to teach us than he did when he was on Sinai's height. Nothing is good unless it is first prudent, but prudence takes wings when the way of prudence is taught us no longer by Eternal Wisdom in some distant heaven but Eternal Wisdom now made man, Emmanuel. Prudence becomes very different when it is taken over by the Holy Spirit himself... many considerations would not occur to us without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom and understanding, counsel and fortitude, knowledge and devotion and fear of the Lord, these are the gifts poured out by the Spirit, though in different measure, upon all Christians. Those gifts, so much more important than the charisms about which we hear so much nowadays, are said to be necessary for our salvation. The righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, the behaviour of the ordinary decent man and the ordinary decent churchgoer will not suffice to save us, but only the Holy Spirit in his gifts. To come to God requires some degree of passivity, of opening the sails to let the mighty, rushing wind which us the Holy Spirit, blow us where it will.
'O Emmanuel, come and save us.' We ourselves as we really are now. Not where we were a while ago, at our baptism, at our first communion, or during the fervour of our novitiate or when we took solemn vows. Be Emmanuel just where we are. Not where we will be when we have rid ourselves of that terrible bad habit we cannot shake off, nor where we will be when we have managed to love this dreadfully bothersome brother a little bit more, nor where we will be at the moment of our death, surrounded and fortified by the rites of Holy Church. Be where we are now. And here what we need to do, in the last analysis, is not to pray that he will be where we are, but to understand that he already is where we are. When we really grasp that he has found us, that he is where we are, then we can go and seek him. He is the Glory of God who sat with the exiles by the waters of Babylon and wept with them in the night. Where we sit now is a good enough place for Emmanuel to come and to enlighten us."
- Geoffrey Preston, OP, 'Hallowing the Time'