Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Distance between Veni and Emmanuel - An Advent Reflection

Veni, veni, Emmanuel, captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel.

You know this song as O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This week, I taught my seventh graders how to sing it in Latin. Why? For a whole host of reasons… one of which is that I have found them to listen more attentively to lyrics when they are in a foreign language; and another of which is that the Latin provides great opportunities to discuss the deeper meanings of the song—deeper meanings which are sometimes lost in translation.

Take veni for example. The kids easily saw the connection between veni and Advent: to come towards. Ad = towards; venire = to come. Advent. But who is coming? We know the answer: Emmanuel!

But what does Emmanuel mean? This is where there was some head-scratching. Well, yes, it is Jesus. But what does Emmanuel mean? More head-scratching; the idea that names mean things was foreign to the young students. Well, I told them, we know that Jesus means “God saves.” Emmanuel means something too. It means “God is with us.”

God is with us. We’ve heard that phrase before in various forms. Gabriel the Archangel greets Mary and says “The Lord is with you”—Catholics also pray that in the Hail Mary. We hear Emmanuel in Isaiah’s prophecy: Emmanuel is the one who is to come. We also hear it in the form of a promise when Jesus ascends to heaven as He says, “I am with you until the end of the age.” At Holy Mass, we are alerted to the name when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.”

Now, when we compare veni and Emmanuel, we see something interesting. When we say veni, come, we are forming a prayer, asking that God come to us. But immediately we then say Emmanuel, God is with us. This is interesting: on the one hand, we have a repetition of the initial words of the prayer, a kind of deepening of the intensity of the petition: come, Jesus, really come, be with us, we need you. On the other hand, we realize that Emmanuel is one of God’s names. And names bespeak identities.

What can we draw from this? That this name reveals to us God’s longing—dare I say, part of His very Being—to dwell with us. Being with us is an extension of love, which is God. God is with us because He loves us; because He wants to be.

Then why the prayer asking Him to be with us? What is keeping Him? Isn’t He already? The answer is found in the next line: captivum solve Israel, qui gemit in exsilio privatus Dei Filio (release captive Israel, who mourns in exile deprived of the Son of God). Wow. Not exactly what you hear in the English version of the song! Ok, so how is this an answer to the question? I will show you how in the remainder of this reflection. The answer will be evident at the end of it.

First, we can say that we find that Israel is (and really, we are) in captivity. What is captivity? Bondage, in prison, enslaved, stuck. How can this be? Well, on the one hand, you do have Israel literally in bondage—not in Egypt, but in Babylon (and Assyria). They are literally in exsilio—in exile. On the other hand, you have us, who are freed by Christ, but yet we still find ourselves enslaved to our vices and bad habits. Even more, we too are in exsilio. To be in exile means to be banished, to be not-at-home. Where are we not-at-home from? Or, more positively: if here is not home, then where is home?

I recall the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen.” In that prayer, we say to Mary “to the do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” Qui gemit in exsilio: who mourns in exile here. The exile is from the Garden of Eden; from Jerusalem; from heaven. And why was there the exile—from Eden, from Jerusalem, and from heaven? Because man chose not-God. Adam and Eve chose sin, taking from the apple tree. So did Israel. So do we. Man chose exile—to be away from home. Home, then, is not simply something geographical. Home is being with God; home, dare I say, is God.

The coming of Emmanuel, then, is not simply a past event, as in the case of Isaiah and the prediction of a Messiah who is born in Bethlehem many years ago. Nor is Emmanuel’s coming merely a future event, when the Christ comes at the end of time to bring the holy and righteous into the heavenly home. Emmanuel’s Coming is also a coming that takes place in the eternal present: God comes to dwell in the hearts and home of man himself.

I am reminded of words from Sacred Scripture:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me (Rev 3:20).

This, in turn, reminded me of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus is coming to a town and passing by. Zacchaeus, as you recall, was a tax-collector and also a man short in stature; he was not well-liked; he was a sinner. But, for some reason unknown to us, Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus’ coming. What is interesting, is that Zacchaeus climbs a tree, thinking that climbing a tree will make him more able to see God. Jesus, as He comes, sees Zacchaeus and says,
                        Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today
(Lk 19:5).
Here, not only does Jesus come and knock on the heart of Zacchaeus, but He does so by inviting himself over (I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me). He will be with us.

And might I add that the whole thing is fragrant with the Eucharist?

The coup de grĂ¢ce occurs when we find that it is not simply Zaccahaeus who is wanting the Lord to come, but it is Jesus who prays that we might come down to Him! Jesus says to us: veni!

What are we coming down from? Perhaps the inflated heights of pride and sin (Adam and Eve and their grasping from a tree....). Whatever it is we are coming down from, we are to come down and, like Isaiah, say to Our Lord: “Here I am.”

And when we do, we find that our Lord says to us in return, “I’m here too.”

Emmanuel. God is with us.

Here, then, is the answer to the question posed above, the question about how, if God is with us, then why are we praying for him to come? On the one hand, we are asking for a future event, the Second Coming, just like Israel begged for a savior to return Her from exile. But on the other hand, we are asking God to come into our lives right now: because we have yet to come down from the tree, to put away sin and walk in faith, we are away from the Lord; we feel the distance between God and us caused by sin. We pray “Come,” asking God who is already here to break through our sin and pride and fear, to draw us close to him, and free us from the captivity of being stuck up in that tree.

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