O Great Little One! O Great Advent!

The highest aim of Advent is to revive the deep memory of a God whose Incarnation gave hope to the world.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (Detail),” ca. 1482-1485
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (Detail),” ca. 1482-1485 (photo: National Gallery of Art / Public Domain)

‘He who is to come will come and will not delay, and now there will be no fear within our land, for he is our Savior.’ — Hebrews 10:37

Old King Ahaz was, by all accounts, a most awful ruler of Judah, his reign lasting 16 godless years, during which he even had his own son offered in sacrifice to Moloch.

And yet, for all his repeated refusals to follow the counsel of the Lord when told to do so, especially by Isaiah, that most powerful of all prophets, one feels a certain fugitive gratitude for the guy. After all, had he not so infuriated the prophet by disdaining to ask for a sign confirming the importance of putting his trust in the Lord alone, Isaiah might not have gone on to make the greatest possible prophecy of all, one which would shake the world to its very foundations. And that, of course, was the prediction about the coming Messiah, who would not only save Israel from all her iniquities but redeem the world as well. 

So, he’s the proximate cause here, but hardly the defining figure in the story. Still, the exchange between the two is sufficiently instructive that every year during these last days of Advent Mother Church reminds us of it.

“Ask for a sign from the Lord your God,” urges the prophet Isaiah; “let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” This is then followed, of course, by the bombshell that will change everything, redirecting the entire course of human history.

Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

Seven centuries later the words of the prophet Isaiah will come to pass, words which only this morning I and numberless Catholics around the world heard repeated in the First Reading of the Mass. Not for the first time, to be sure, but as often I’ve heard them spoken, I never tire of hearing them again, so astonishing is the promise they contain. Each time I listen becomes a fresh, resonant rediscovery of something so momentous and far-reaching that I cannot even imagine not wanting to hear the unheard of promise repeated over and over. Like a little child, I suppose, seeing the sun climb into the sky each morning, knowing it will never be boring. Or like that same child, standing in rapt attention before the ocean, watching wave upon wave pound against the beach, certain that it will never say to the sea, “Well, I’ve seen enough. You can stop doing it now.”

There can never be too much of a good thing. And this is the best thing of all. God coming to visit us. Dropping in, as it were, to spend his life in our world, pitching his tent, to recall the precise prophetic phrase, in our midst. “In the Great Sea of our Usual Life,” exclaims Luigi Giussani, “a Continual Newness.”

And there is something else that happens on this day, something to help quicken the sense of expectant waiting we all have, however inchoate, of longing for the Lord to come, to come quickly, too, as if we could not bear his being absent any longer. Besides the words of Isaiah which we hear, there are the “O Antiphons” that we sing. All those haunting lyrics we get to hear over and over, year after year. Every blooming verse belted out by a gathering of people eager to see and to welcome the God who has promised to come among us. Coming as a little child, no less, reminding us that here is someone to whom we may safely draw near, knowing he will keep us safe.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Since at least the eighth century, and always during the last days before Christmas when the promised dawn from on high will suddenly burst upon us, these lines of inspired lyric poetry have been sung. Chanted rather, which is the mode in which they first came to us from the time of the Gregorian reform.  But their provenance, of course, reaches all the way back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah, to the hope and travail of which he wrote, marking the history of Israel. Which is our history, too, awakening the same longings we all have for God to deliver us. 

It is not unfitting, therefore, that the same lines apply to us as they do to Israel, the people who were the first to receive the promised good news from God. 

O come, O come, thou Lord of Might,
Who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the law.
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.

O come, thou Wisdom born in heaven’s height,
Come peacefully, thy peoples set aright,
To us the path of knowledge show,
And help us in that way to go.

Here, surely, is the most pressing need we have, the highest aim of Advent itself, which is to bring to life yet again the one memory that lies deeper than all the rest, a memory without which we could not go on living and would die of despair. And that is the memory of a God who in coming among us gave hope to the world that death and sin need not be the last word. That an indestructible life has been promised to us, a life which we see inscribed on the face of a little child whose birth we shall soon celebrate, yet again, on Christmas morn.

‘O Great Little One! Whose all embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.’
— Richard Crashaw