What's In a Name?

The Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a song of longing and profound faith. But who is Emmanuel? Today’s Gospel tells us that the word Emmanuel means “with us is God,” and it implies that the child born of Mary is this Emmanuel. But what of the child in the first reading? Surely Isaiah had some other child in mind. Might there be more than one Emmanuel?

Actually, Emmanuel is more a title than a personal name. Many ancient people believed that kings were either gods in human form or direct descendants of the gods. Therefore, every king was regarded as “God-with-us.” Isaiah encourages King Ahaz to trust in God and not in the military power of his adversaries. He assures him that a future emmanuel (most likely his own unborn son) will grow up in a land of peace. Ahaz is told to trust that God will grant such a future of peace for the people. This promise became a standard for proclaiming a future king and a future time of peace. It also nourished the people’s trust in God. Though they continued to be disappointed in their royal leaders, they never gave up hope that God would some day bring that promise to fulfillment.

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In the Gospel, the angel tells Joseph that the time has come. Though in some way every king was an emmanuel, the child to be born of Mary would be the long-awaited eschatological Emmanuel. As no other king could claim, this child would really be “God-with-us.” The angel also announces the child’s name, Jesus. There is a play on words here. The name Jesus is the Greek form of a Hebrew name that means “YHWH is salvation.” The angel then explains that the child will be so named because he “will save his people.”

Besides his personal name and royal title, Jesus is referred to in other ways in the second reading. Paul first identifies him as a descendant of David, thus acknowledging his royal origin. He also calls him Son of God, another title that was used for ancient kings. Although Israel, when applying the title to its own kings, emptied it of any divine meaning, the early Christians, when applying it to Jesus, intended it to refer to divine origin. Paul used still another royal title, calling him Christ, “the anointed one” of God. Finally, perhaps the most familiar title is Lord. While this is a common title of respect, when applied to Jesus it contains divine connotations, because kyrios (“Lord”) became the Greek substitute for YHWH, the personal name for God in the Hebrew tradition. All of this is “what’s in a name.”Praying With Scripture

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