“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 Leader of the House of Israel, giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai: come to rescue us with your mighty power!
The second O Antiphon, prayed on December 18, focuses on the nation of Israel, its leadership, and the law they were called to follow. We should note first that “House of Israel” is one of the most common titles for God’s people throughout the Old Testament. More than three hundred times, the Torah, the prophets, and the wisdom literature make this specific reference. Each time it is used, it is recalling one of the promises made to Abraham near the beginning of covenant history (see Gen. 12:1-3). That promise was then fulfilled when God made his covenant with King David, stating that He would build “a house,” a dynasty, from the anointed king (see 2 Sam. 7:1-11). God has always been building a spiritual house, led by prophets and kings, that would ultimately bring all people into covenant relationship with Him.
Israel’s history had several notable leaders from the time of the exodus, then finding its apex in King David. The first leader who acted as mediator of the covenant was Moses, who safely led Israel across the Red Sea, away from the Egyptian army. While Israel wandered the desert, Moses climbed Mount Sinai, received the Torah from God, and came down the mountain to give the Law to Israel. Moses was succeeded by Joshua, who led Israel into the Promised Land and worked to purge the nation and the land of idol worship. These were two of the greatest leaders of the house.
Yet, because Israel did not fully eradicate idol worship, the people and their later leaders allowed their hearts to be turned away from God. The messages of all the prophets, beginning with Samuel, was about the punishment and shame that would come upon Israel if they did not turn their hearts back to the Lord. “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods…from among you, and direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you…” (1 Sam. 7:3).
These messages from the prophets also proclaim that such an effort is ultimately impossible by the people on their own. It must be God who provides the rescue and deliverance. This reality is prayed by Gideon before his altar-crushing mission (see Judges 6); by King David in many Psalms, especially numbers 69 and 71; and even by King Darius of the Persians after God protected Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the den of lions. The God of the Jews, declared Darius, “delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions” (Dan. 6:7-28). It is a constant theme in the Old Testament: God’s people are powerless on their own.
Of course, all these themes and ideas point us to Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus climbed the Mount of the Beatitudes and gave the New Law of the Beatitudes to the New Israel, those who would be his disciples. In His Last Supper Discourse, Jesus gives us the new law of charity (see Jn. 13:34-35). Like Joshua, Jesus puts the sword to idol worship in our lives (see Mt. 10:32-39). Finally, Jesus tells us that “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Even St. Paul wrote to the Romans:
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).
Indeed, Jesus has revealed by His words and, especially, by His Paschal Mystery, that He is the perfect Leader of the fulfilled House of Israel, the Church.
As we seek to deepen our understanding of this antiphon, and apply it to our lives, some good questions to consider are: What miracles of God’s liberation have I witnessed? How has God’s law rescued me? Do I realize that I am powerless on my own, that I need His power for my growth and salvation? How is God’s new law leading me to something better than I have experienced before?
**This translation of the O Antiphons is taken from the translation available on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: https://www.usccb.org/prayers/o-antiphons-advent.