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It was 1957. Near midnight, shivery blasts rattled the convent’s double casement windows and dumped mounds of snow upon blue spruces and towering oaks. Swirling, cracking, snapping sounds rubbed against the erstwhile silence and quickened the steps of hundreds of black-laced low-heeled shoes along the long hardwood floors, polished for the occasion: New Year’s Eve. The swish of long black choir cloaks fastened at the chin heightened the drama.

Further ahead, I made out the great doors of the Gothic chapel opening out to the older nuns who bowed before the Superior, toed the wooden kneelers of their choir stalls, knelt down, and opened their libers. As the procession inched toward the chapel, steam sizzled from occasional radiators affording oases of warmth.

Four months into my postulancy in the noviceship, I watched, bug-eyed, so as not to make a mistake. Finally, I opened my liber with the others and waited for the pitch pipe’s tone from the Mistress of the Choir. After I adjusted my wool skirt on the kneeler, I gazed at the sanctuary, where thick beeswax candles shadowed the altar and other furnishings.

Then a short beep signaled everyone to grab their opened libers and stand facing each other as the Miserere was intoned, a psalm pleading God’s forgiveness for sins committed in the year, 1957. Then, followed another ancient Latin hymn, the Te Deum, heartfelt thanksgiving for its graces.

Just as the tower bell gonged midnight, the Jesuit celebrant began Mass, in union with the praying church all over the world. No matter the blight of racial integration in our country, no matter Sukarno’s expulsion of the Dutch from Indonesia, no matter the world’s excesses—deep Peace’s embrace revealed another realm and we were in it.

I’ve never forgotten that night.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,

the hope of the nations and their Savior:

Come and save us, O Lord our God.

On December 23, 2021, the seventh and final O Antiphon climaxes these pleas for deliverance. As if to augment Yahweh’s power even more, previously used Messianic titles are added to Emmanuel, found in Isaiah 7:14.  

Emmanuel, a prophetic name meaning God-with-us, first appeared in the prophecy of Isaiah, 736 BCE, when enemies of the Judean King Ahaz sought to destroy Jerusalem…the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel—A mysterious prophecy that still seizes the imaginations of believers, an intimacy that whispers in all life forms.

Yet, how access this power to waylay enemies, wherever discovered? Evil is real; ancient Israelites as well as ourselves have always needed guidance and protection.  On our own, this is impossible.

Again, the imperatives, Come and save us, conclude this O Antiphon and prepare us for the celebration of the full Christmas mysteries.

Indeed, God is intimately with us—that never changes.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,

who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

The second O Antiphon, December 18, 2021, addresses the longed-for Messiah as Adonai, influenced by Isaiah11: 4-5; 33:22.

The ancient Hebrew word Adonai means Lord or Master: it speaks to His absolute sovereignty over all life, first recorded in the Old Testament book of Genesis. At that time, the Israelites experienced the harshness, the complexity of life. Early on, they learned that their survival depended upon Another, a monotheistic God, unlike the pantheon of gods worshiped by their neighbors. Through the wisdom of the first patriarch Abraham came an inchoate calling, culminating centuries later within the covenanted relationship, finalized by the prophet Moses.

It is to this prophet’s reliance upon the power of God that we turn. Like the others, he experienced Adonai’s call in the burning bush, together with the corresponding mandate of freeing the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppression—An impossible task Moses acceded to only after pointed dialogue. The outstretched arm played a significant role in this freedom.

Because the Red Sea thwarted the Israelites’ flight from hundreds of Pharaoh’s chariots armed to kill, Adonai instructed Moses to raise his arm, causing the waters to part into dry ground for them to cross. When everyone was freed, Moses was instructed to lower his arm, causing the rushing waters to drown horses, chariots, and drivers.

Like the Israelites, we falter before obvious good; we need help, beyond our imagination. Thus the outstretched arm from the Moses story still works. The imperatives, Come and redeem signify willingness to change. On our own, such is impossible.  

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