See also past Guest columns.

‘God is with us’ is mystery and truth Print
Guest column
Fr. Steve Grunow

In the weeks prior to the celebration of Christmas, many Christians will sing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," a traditional hymn of the Advent season that implores:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel . . .

It seems to be a stringing together of liturgical antiphons, derived from scriptural texts, which originates in the 12th century.

The eloquent words of the hymn are simultaneously lamentation and consolation, recognizing the plight of Israel while at the same time encouraging God's chosen people to envision the day when the God of Israel will act in an extraordinary way to liberate them from oppression.

Lamentation then gives ways in the hymn to poetry and mysterious metaphors that indicate the identity of the Emmanuel who is to come:

O come, Thou Day Star, come and cheer . . . O come, Thou Key of David, come . . . O come, Thou Rod of Jesse . . .

These are all biblical allusions derived for the most part from the prophet Isaiah, all of which evoke the return of a king to Israel -- and not just any claimant to the throne, but someone who would arise from the house of David himself.

This imagery and the ethos of the hymn deeply immerse us in the strange world of biblical prophecy, particularly in the aftermath of the terrifying events of the year 587 B.C.

The prophecies of the Book of Isaiah are a window into the year 587 B.C. This was the year that the last of the defenses of the Kingdom of Judah were overcome by the armies of Babylon.

The Kingdom of Judah was the last remnant of the kingdom founded by David, a kingdom that was divided after the death of David's son, Solomon. The northern part of the divided legacy of King David fell to the armies of Assyria in the year 722 B.C.

This was a devastating loss as 10 of the 12 tribes, tribes that had been united by King David, effectively disappeared from that moment from history.

Assyria would fall before Babylon, and the Kingdom of Judah's attempt to maintain its independence through alliances with other powers would eventually lead to disaster.

Israel is defeated

Judah would fall, the city of David, Jerusalem, would receive the full force of Babylon's fury; it would be destroyed. The royal family would be executed, the temple, the spiritual and cultural center of the people of Israel, would be desecrated and razed to the ground.

In the wake of all this, Israel was more than a defeated people; in the eyes of the world, they were no more.

Isaiah's prophecies provide Israel with a theological point of view in regard to these events and offer the strange insight that although Israel has been defeated, the God of Israel has not.

The events of history, even those of such terrifying consequence like what happened in the year 587 B.C., are "under God," meaning that a mysterious providence is moving Israel through their current circumstances toward a purpose that has yet to realize.

The Book of the prophet Isaiah presents the culmination of God's purposes in the revelation of an extraordinary person who would bring about the restoration of the Kingdom of David and would, mysteriously enough, rise out of the ashes of David's remaining heirs.

Raising Israel and Jesus  from the dead

This crystallizes the Messianic expectations of Israel: the anticipation that God would act in Israel's history, and his actions would culminate in the restoration of the Kingdom of David, the gathering of the scattered tribes (even those seemingly lost to history), the defeat of Israel's enemies, and the rebuilding of the temple.

All of this would lead to the recognition by the nations of the world that the God of Israel is the one, true God, and his Messiah is the Lord of the nations.

It was this set of expectations that electrified the followers of the Lord Jesus, and the Gospel that they proclaimed was an announcement that in and through Jesus of Nazareth, God had finally acted to bring Israel's history to its culmination and set right everything that had gone wrong leading up to and including the events of 587 B.C.

Encounters with God

The canonical Gospels that originate in the witness of the earliest followers of the Lord Jesus are each, in their own way, making the case that Christ's identity as the Messiah is true. When we hear those scriptures proclaimed, we want to be deeply attentive to how the Gospels are making the case for Christ as the Messiah.

However, the canonical Gospels say more about the Lord Jesus than just how he is the Messiah. They make an extraordinary claim about his essential identity. Not only is he the fulfillment of Israel's Messianic expectations, but in him, God has done something remarkable: he has become himself Israel's Messiah.

Thus, the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of the arrival of the one called "Emmanuel" ("God with us") is not just about the establishment of a new institution. God offers more than a symbol; he offers himself, and this offering is revealed to Israel in God's face-to-face encounter with his people in Jesus of Nazareth.

The melodious beauty and poetic wonder of the hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is an expression of not only Israel's Messianic expectations, but also their mysterious fulfillment in the divine person of Christ.

Fr. Steve Grunow is the CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at