Today’s gospel offers a kind of a homely snapshot of what we’ve been so eagerly waiting for since Advent began. Elizabeth says : “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me ?” Her question is another way of saying “Emmanuel,” that is, “God with us.” Here, in the house of Zechariah, God is with her in the most intimate way imaginable, carried in the womb of Mary, his mother. This young girl, most likely known to her older kinswoman since her own birth not that many years before, now makes “Emmanuel” a flesh and blood reality for her in her own home.
Luke tells us at the very beginning of his gospel that Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah “were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (1:6). Faithful Jews like this old couple understood this kind of righteousness as the way to live Torah and thus to hasten the coming of the Messiah. But that the Messiah would be carried across their threshold in the body of a young girl was beyond any type of pious hope. And yet, there she was.
Elizabeth and Mary come together at this moment to praise the action in their lives of the God who-is-with-them. Elizabeth’s hospitality to the “mother of [her] Lord,” marked by that enthusiastic leap of her unborn child, culminates in her own forthright pronouncement concerning Mary’s “blessedness” among women. Mary is blessed for having believed that “what was spoken to [her] by the Lord would be fulfilled" (v. 45).
So here in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in the hilltop town of Ain Karim, in the front parlor of an elderly couple who’ve had a big and joyful surprise themselves, we get a joyful glimpse of what’s to come. In “real time,” it will be another three months before the birth of John and six more before that of Jesus ; for us, reading about it again for who knows how many times (or telling it for the first time to someone who’s waiting for Santa with an impatience that we might do well to adapt for ourselves as we wait for Emmanuel) it’s less than two days before that second birth. It’s good to join Elizabeth and John –not to mention that small friend of Santa— and get excited !
Monks and nuns – including all of us Religious of the Assumption, but really anyone who prays the daily Office – have been given a great way to feel that excitement mounting. During these “Golden Nights” (December 17-23), we introduce our singing of Mary’s Magnificat at Vespers with a special antiphon, one of the great “O Antiphons,” so called because each begins with that wonderful little particle : “O.”
Each Antiphon addresses Jesus with a unique title that comes from the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah :
- December 17 : O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
- December 18 : O Adonai (O Lord)
- December 19 : O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
- December 20 : O Clavis David (O Key of David)
- December 21 : O Oriens (O Dayspring)
- December 22 : O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
- December 23 : O Emmanuel (O God With Us)
The first initials of the titles, when read backwards, form an acrostic for the Latin "Ero Cras," which means "Tomorrow I come."
Tonight’s the last night for the O’s – but it’s just the beginning for the wonder and joy of Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Tomorrow he comes. May he remain with us and we with him now and always. Amen.
PS – If you’d like to hear a lovely rendition of tonight’s O, just click on this link, which features a 44 second clip of the antiphon for 23 December sung by the Dominican student brothers in Oxford >> click on this link >>
The Latin text is provided ; here is the English translation :
O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
Merry Christmas !
Sr Nuala Cotter
Worcester, United States