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‘O come, Emmanuel, save us, for you are our God’

The following reflection is one of a series by Elizabeth West of Harefield, Australia, on the O Antiphons, the alleluia verses from the Liturgy of the Hours traditionally recited during vespers in the latter days of Advent.


Tonight we gathered to pray the last of the O Antiphons. The air we drew into our lungs to give us breath to sing was clean, washed by summer storm and rain. The dust had been laid low, and the atmosphere was clear enough to see the details of the farms across the valley floor. Trees shone, and rocks on the hills opposite gleamed with moisture. It was pure and still in this late afternoon prayer time. No harvesters patrolled the paddocks, and few cars passed. In the apricot tree, a large orb-weaving spider (whose genus bears the grandiose name of Eriphora), was busy weaving her web, and around the vegetable garden, monarch flycatchers flipped and spun in their nightly food drive.

In the quiet, we gathered to pray. “O Emmanuel, giver of a new law to all nations, come and save us, for you are our God,” and our voices shook the stillness enough to make Eriphora pause in her weaving. For me, there was a longing in this last antiphon -- sung out against the dying day -- and a recognition of the supremacy of Christ, lawgiver, peace-bringer, heart-healer. We long for a presence among us that can bring us to something we call “home” where we are at one with our own deepest longing.

“You are our God,” we sang, “come and save us.” Save us from ourselves, from our selfishness, our pride and arrogance, from our self-pity and our self-doubt. Come and save us, Emmanuel, from the fears that hold us prisoner of the dark. Come and save us, give us light.

As the antiphon settled to stillness, the words of Isaiah came to mind: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ ” (Isaiah 9:6).

It is “to us” a child is born. To us is a son given. To us does God reveal tenderness in the person of Jesus. To us does God show might and power, in the fragile gift of a child born of a woman. To us. And more still. To our very selves is given Christ. The very gift of Christmas is our own call to empty ourselves in order to be made pregnant with the Word -- the gift of grace that is Christ. To us and in us indeed a Son is given.

We are responsible for the gift. Our task is to nurture it and love it to life. Christmas is more than a remembering of the wonder of God’s love for us, it is the prompting to remember that each of us is asked to mother-forth the son given to us as gift. St. Bernard said it gracefully I think: “What use is it to us if Christ be born in Bethlehem and not in our own hearts?” What use indeed! Christmas is not simply the remembering of the moment of Jesus’ birth and our redemption, it is the timely reminder of our call to bring Christ to birth in our world, through our godly deeds and actions. We, too, are theotokos -- Christ bearers to the world.

So we sang our final antiphon. “O Emmanuel, Giver of a new law to all nations, come and save us, for you are our God.” Now, we wait. In the stillness. Wait and work and wait: Wait for the moment of final recognition and rebirthing. Wait with endless longing and with boundless hope. Wait, and watch and work, that the kingdom come, and hearts be woven into one.

Sr. Elizabeth A. West is a member of the Australian Province of the Little Company of Mary. She is the retreat director for the Overdale Retreat Centre in Harefield, Australia. Her e-mail address is ewest@lcm.org.au

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000