“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a beautiful hymn that we hear frequently throughout Advent. It has seven verses, each of which come from one of the O Antiphons. These are seven antiphonal prayers specifically used during the Church’s evening prayer from December 17 to 23, leading up to the Nativity of Our Lord. The O Antiphons look back through the history of salvation presented in Sacred Scripture, and they cry out for the long-expected Messiah who is the culmination of that history. Praying with these titles and antiphons has the potential to make Advent deeply memorable. Every time we hear these words and images, or sing the hymn, our expectation of God-with-us is kindled. This series of reflections is offered in hopes that individuals and families will be ready to pray the O Antiphons in the final week before Christmas eve; that they will be able to savor the birth of Emmanuel in that Bethlehem stable.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church: come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
The sixth O Antiphon, which we pray on December 22, draws on several ideas that have appeared in previous antiphons. It reminds us that humanity is created in a lowly condition, but that we have the potential to be redeemed and elevated by a majestic king.
This antiphon concludes by acknowledging that we are “formed from the dust.” That phrase quickly brings to mind the scene in the Garden of Eden, after the man and woman had eaten the forbidden fruit. God reveals the curses that will attend them and their offspring because of their decision. At the end of the list of consequences, God says to Adam, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it your were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:8-19). The original sin has caused an enduring rupture, which humanity cannot mend. And, so, we have been waiting ever since for God to send the solution that He promised (Gen. 3:15).
This antiphon also draws on the images that are common in the prophecies of ancient Israel. When we hear a phrase such as “O King of all nations,” we ought to think first of the great King of Israel, David, who conquered the nations that surrounded the land of Judah. After David’s death, a nasty civil war ensues between his grandsons. Large portions of Israel are scattered into the surrounding areas because of that war. The kingdom’s size and power are greatly reduced. Yet, God proclaims His fidelity through the prophet Zechariah:
“I will strengthen the house of Judah…I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them; for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them. … Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember me, and with their children they shall live and return” (Zech. 10:6-9).
In the same message, Zechariah proclaims that the land of Judah will be the provenance of “the cornerstone,” from whom every ruler and warrior will come to fight and reestablish the House of Israel (Zech. 10:3-5). So it is a king, who hails from Judah, who will gather all the nations into a single house of which he is the cornerstone (or keystone).
This is the salvation that the ancient Israelites sought, and it is the salvation that is available to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfills these prophetic utterances. As St. Luke recounts the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he provides a genealogy in which he traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, and even to Adam. This is clearly to portray the Messiah as the King of the Nations whose ministry is to gather all people to Himself. (see Lk. 3:23-38).
At the end of His public ministry, Jesus makes this even more specific. He says to His disciples, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn. 12:31-32). As David cast out all the pagan nations from around Judah, the new King of Judah will cast out the entities that have power over this world. This becomes all the more apparent as the epitaph above Jesus’ Cross was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that all nations would be able to read His title.
Finally, those who followed Jesus learned that the single dwelling that Jesus founded, the gathering spot for all nations, was the Church. St. Peter, to whom Jesus had given the keys of His authority, quotes the prophecy of Zechariah as he teaches this reality: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house….” Of this house, Jesus is the cornerstone (1 Pt. 2:4-10).
In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, St. Paul makes explicit the fact that Jesus is the Cornerstone. Writing to disciples who have accepted the Gospel, the Apostle tells them,
“…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21).
So, as we pray this antiphon, it is good for all of us to remember our humble and lowly origins. And, it is even better to remember that the King is coming to save us and gather us into His secure dwelling place. As Christmas draws nigh, do I realize that I am dust? Do I have a certitude that my Creator intends to redeem and elevate me? Am I willing to let the King of the Nations come into my spiritual dwelling and cast out any false idols? Am I willing to take up residence in Jesus’ House, the Church, glorifying Him with people of every nation?
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