O Come, O Come, Emmanuel - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Today we have a particular focus on Jesus' parents. Our collect for the day and our prayer at the lighting of the fourth candle on our advent wreath focused on Mary and in our Gospel reading Joseph is a particular focus.  It's easy to rather overlook Joseph so I'm going to give some particular attention to him this morning.

The story we heard in the Gospel reading is a familiar one.   "When Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child."  The marriage customs of the day incorporated a kind of engagement period before the couple would live together.  It is during that period that Mary becomes pregnant and by implication Joseph assumes that she is guilty of adultery.  Rather than bring charges against her in public, which might have led to her being stoned to death, Joseph decides to divorce her quietly.

But he has a dream in which an angel of the Lord says, "Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  This very strongly echoes the prophecy that we heard from Isaiah in our first reading - "therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel".  Emmanuel, meaning God is with us. 

We should recognise that this passage from Isaiah is a contentious one.  It is only in the Greek translation that it reads 'a virgin shall conceive', in the Hebrew it is a 'young woman shall conceive' and there are those who suggest that this is evidence of the Christian community manufacturing the fulfilment of a prophecy that they had misunderstood.  To us, as members of the Christian community, we understand that in their efforts to make sense of events of Christ's birth, his life, death and resurrection, the apostles looked to their scriptural inheritance.  They didn't seem themselves as superseding those scriptures; rather they were reinterpreting them in the light of their experience and of their true fulfilment.

Others who have reflected on our Gospel reading have sometimes made much of Joseph's silence.  It's an interesting observation.  There are no words attributed to Joseph in the Gospels.  Each time Joseph makes an appearance, he's silent.  But he's not passive, he's not just an onlooker, rather he's a man of action.  After the angel appears to reassure Joseph in his dream, he "rises and takes Mary into his house." Similarly, when he is later advised to flee to Bethlehem or return from Egypt, he gets on with it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are more significant observations to be made about Joseph.  Firstly, he was obedient to God's will, very much like Mary and secondly, he trusted in the scriptures and their prophecy and he was expectant, he awaited the coming of the messiah.

Now in this waiting season of advent  we have been singing the advent carol - O come, O Come, Emmanuel!  It's a personal favourite but I realise that some of its words may seem opaque.  It's well worth closer attention though I think.  For me it points to where I can look to deepen that personal expectation of Christ's coming in the days leading up to Christmas.

The carol is derived from what are known as the O Antiphons.  An antiphon is a verse of scripture that's sung at evensong immediately before and after the Magnificat, the hymn of Mary, the words attributed to her at the annunciation when she was visited by the angel who explained that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit.  "My soul doth magnify the Lord" she says, "and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Saviour".  During the last seven days of Advent, the antiphons that are used are all messianic titles found in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The words of 'O come, O Come, Emmanuel' reflect some these messianic titles.  It's a carol that takes the stand point of the early Jewish church and today we might imagine that it presents for us Joseph's eye view because we can reasonably assume that he was very steeped in the Hebrew tradition and scriptures.  He appears to have recognised the fulfilment of prophecy of which the angel spoke - "therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel".  Emmanuel is the first messianic title in the carol.

Let's look at the others - you'll find it in your order of service if you'd like to remind yourself.  Two of them, the rod of Jesse and the key of David relate to ancestry.  The line of Israel's kings was cut down by its enemies, by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  The temple was destroyed and the people were taken into exile and yet Isaiah spoke words of restoration.  "There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse" he says. 

The messiah will come from Jesse's family, Jesse was the father of King David of course, and elsewhere Isaiah says "I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David." You may have noted that the angel greeted Joseph as 'Son of David' and Matthew's Gospel opens with a long list of the generations from Abraham through Jesse and David and eventually to Joseph.

Between those two verses we see another messianic title - O Come, O Come, thou dayspring bright.  The title doesn't actually appear in the Hebrew scriptures but it does reflect passages in Isaiah that foresee the coming of a 'great light' - the people who have lived in darkness have seen a great light - and the prophet Malachi says "but unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings".  In the New Testament we see this 'dayspring' title emerge.  In the Benedictus (or Song of Zechariah, the Canticle used in morning prayer), John the Baptist's father says  "In the tender compassion of our God the dayspring from on high shall break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death".

The last verse of the carol reflects the antiphon that is used on this day, the 18th December, O Adonai - O Lord.  Adonai is actually a plural for Lord.  Deuteronomy refers to the Lord of Lords and it's a title is used in the book of Exodus.  Hence the carol speaks of Adonai, the Lord, appearing to Moses in the flame of the burning bush.  Elsewhere he says of the messiah "he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth", that's an illusion that reflects Moses striking the Red Sea.

So in singing this carol we position ourselves as ancient Israel, as Joseph perhaps, waiting and preparing for the promised saviour.  O Come, O Come Emmanuel, derived from those O Antiphons summarises for us the messianic titles of Hebrew prophecy.  Of course there is a chorus that we sing in response to each of the verses.  It's the voice of revelation that Joseph trusted and which we too are called to trust in- "Rejoice, Rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel". 




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