O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.
There is only one Incarnation, but there are infinite signs of emmanuel.
I am struck today by the text from Isaiah that is the source for this antiphon: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The name of the coming Lord was foretold, but it wasn’t a proper name so much as a description of what God was about to do and what God has intended from all eternity.
The pregnant young woman, Mary of Nazareth, was a sign that fits the description of Isaiah, but she hasn’t been nor remains the only sign of emmanuel, God-with-us. If we are able to open the eyes of our hearts to see the presence of God around us, we know too can see signs of a divine love so powerful that it could not be contained simply to Godself, but must overflow into creation and in the ultimate expression of love in God’s becoming one with us.
Some years ago I wrote an article titled, “A Newborn and St. Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life as Incarnational Encounters.” In it I talked about how the experience of meeting and holding my godson, the firstborn of my two best friends from college, had been for me an experience of the Incarnation, of emmanuel. I saw reflected in the preciousness of this new life the reality of a mystery beyond words, a mystery that lies deep within each of us in the very contingent existence we experience. We didn’t have to be. Nothing did. Yet, God loved each of us and all of creation into existence.
In addition to experiencing the Incarnation in meeting this newborn child, I also recalled how St. Bonaventure in his treatise The Tree of Life offers a mystical reflection that would later serve as the foundation for and become popularized by Ignatian imaginative prayer and reflection. Bonaventure invites his readers to enter into the Gospel and imagine themselves there at the crib, alongside Christ, at the cross, and to experience what is being experienced in particular moments of God’s history with us as one like us.
Bonaventure’s reflections on the nativity are particularly striking for their vividness and beauty. His is a guided meditation: “Do not now turn away from the brilliance of that star in the east which guides you. Become a companion of the holy kings… adore, confess and praise this humble God lying in a manger.” He then invites us to “embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.” To kiss the newborn baby’s feet like parents admiring the new life they’ve co-created is something that has always stayed with me. It is real and lovely and far-less-abstract than talking about “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas.”
This sort of reflection helps me to think about the everyday experiences –- like new parents with their child or the love between partners or the beauty of creation –- that helps reveal and remind us of emmanuel. Christmas then is not simply a once-a-year time for presence and songs and “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas,” but is the starkest reminder of how Christ is already in Christmas and the day after Christmas and the day after that!
How better could we celebrate what we believe about the Incarnation than shifting our awareness to the presence of God-with-us still? May this Christmas be the beginning of putting “Christ” back in the “everyday!” And may we all bear witness to the infinite signs of presence and coming of Emmanuel.