What Are We Waiting For?: Andrew, Advent and Emmanuel

"The Calling of the Apostles" (1481), by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Wikimedia Commons)
“The Calling of the Apostles” (1481), by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Wikimedia Commons)

Feast of the Apostle Andrew, November 30, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

On this day, the thirtieth of November, we celebrate the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-called. As you may imagine, he is a saint who is special to me and always has been. And although I was not raised in the Orthodox faith and so my family did not maintain the practice of assigning patron saints to children with their names, my parents told me that I was indeed named for the Apostle Andrew, the first of the disciples of Jesus.

The Apostle Andrew is one of the least-discussed of the Twelve Apostles in the New Testament. His name is mentioned in only twelve verses—there are just a few moments when he appears. But he gains this title of “First-called” from the moment we hear in the Gospel today. Andrew, who at this point in the Gospel is still a disciple of John the Baptist, is present with another of John’s disciples when they hear their teacher look at Jesus and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” And they speak with Jesus, Who invites them to follow Him, saying, “Come and see.” And they follow Him.

We do not know who the other disciple of John was, but we know it wasn’t Andrew’s brother Peter (who is still being called “Simon” at this point), because Andrew then goes to find his brother and says to him, “We have found the Messiah.” So it is Andrew who brings his brother, who becomes the prince of the Apostles.

As I was considering this moment when Andrew not only becomes the first of the Twelve Apostles but also introduces his brother to Jesus, I began to consider his place here in the Church year. Certainly, the calling of St. Andrew as an apostle does not really chronologically fit into the narrative that we are now entering into—the birth of Jesus Christ. But there is still something to this in a more thematic, symbolic sense.

Andrew is one who found the Messiah and introduced him to his brother. His conversion leads to the conversion of the leader of the Apostles, and theirs together begin the process of the conversion of all who would approach Jesus and also become His disciples.

As we are now in the Nativity Fast, which is sometimes called the “Advent Fast,” we are also on this same journey. Perhaps we are disciples of some other kind—Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist, but perhaps we are disciples of some other truth. It may be that those who are listening here today are disciples of something we might call “being a good person” or perhaps “being a good church member.” Or maybe some are disciples of some other kind of Christianity or another religion entirely. All these discipleships have their truth, but it is incomplete. Andrew followed John, but when Jesus came, the focus shifted, because he was beholding the Lamb of God.

Do we need to shift our focus? Have we been following after what is good, but now it is time to follow after what is better? Andrew had gotten as far as John could take him. Now it was time for the fullness of revelation to come to him. There are so many places we could go with this image, but I think you get the point. Andrew followed John for a while, but now it was time for him to follow Jesus. And each of us has followed some truth for a while, but now with the coming of this great feast, it is time for us to apprehend a fuller revelation. Where we have been is not necessarily bad—it may well be very good—but it is not yet where we could be. Thus, an element of our transformation as Christians is not just to move from bad to good, but to move from good to better, from incomplete to fullness.

But there is another reason that we should think of the coming of Jesus at Christmas when we celebrate the feast of the Apostle Andrew, and it is a reason which is less well known to the Eastern Christian world. In the Western Christian tradition, including both the ancient Western Church when it was still in communion with Orthodoxy and in the handful of Orthodox parishes who worship according to the Western Rite in our own day, the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day marks the beginning of Advent, as well as their liturgical new year. This is still true even today for most Western Christian liturgical communities outside of Orthodoxy.

And so Andrew’s apprehension of the coming of the Messiah has long been paired with many Christians’ doing the same thing. And even the secular society tends to start thinking of Christmas right about this time, since the Thanksgiving holiday has passed.

With all that in mind, I would like to consider for a moment a piece of that ancient Western Christian inheritance which all Christians should be able to share in some way. Most of us here are probably familiar with the Christmas hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” What we may not know is that this hymn is derived from seven ancient Latin hymns called the “O Antiphons,” so-called because each of them begins with the Latin word “O,” which is used in poetic English when we are calling on someone, as in saying, “O Lord.”

These seven antiphons are used at Vespers on the last seven days of Advent in the Western liturgical tradition. Each one of them begins with a Scriptural name of Christ. Let’s focus in on the beginning of the final one, “O Emmanuel.”

The antiphon reads this way:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

This name of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, means “God with us.” It is from Isaiah 7:14, probably the most famous passage in that prophetic book. That verse says this: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”

The prophecy of the coming Messiah, echoing into first century Palestine and certainly well-known to the Apostle Andrew, must have occurred to him when he met Jesus and then told his brother that the long-expected Messiah had finally come. The virgin had conceived and borne a Son, and here He was standing before them, the Christ, the Anointed One of God. And Andrew may not have yet known it at that moment, but that Messiah Who was to be called “Emmanuel”—God with us—who would reconcile His people to God and bring God’s presence among them, would also truly be God in the flesh. In Him, God is with us.

Just try to imagine for a moment what it must have been like for Andrew to come to the realization that the Messiah had finally come. His people had waited for literally thousands of years for His coming, the One Who would redeem Israel and save His people from their sins. A hope shared by Andrew’s fathers and grandfathers and ancestors for almost innumerable generations had quietly come to Galilee and had been pointed out by this rough man John the Baptist, who called Him “the Lamb of God.” This is the One they had been waiting for. How could it be?

There is a sense of relief when Christmas finally comes. It is a release of all the anticipation building up for some weeks. In American culture, that anticipation begins to build right around now, since it is the post-Thanksgiving Christmas shopping season. For Western Christians, the anticipation of Advent begins today. For most Orthodox Christians, that anticipation began a couple of weeks ago on November 15, when we began the Nativity Fast, though we now have a stronger sense of it, as we have begun to sing “Christ is born” at Matins and “The Virgin cometh today” during the Divine Liturgy.

Let us now weave together these themes. First, we see Andrew the First-called of the apostles making the move from good to better by transferring his discipleship from John the Baptist to the Lord Jesus, the “Lamb of God.” Next, we consider what it meant for him that he finally found the long-awaited Messiah, Who is prophesied in the Old Testament and is called “Emmanuel” there and also in Christian hymnography, particularly in these great “O Antiphons” of the ancient Christian West.

And finally, we consider the character of our waiting, which is determined by what we are waiting for. If we are only waiting for family and food and presents, then of course it can be a pleasant waiting, as we anticipate something beautiful. But if that is all we are waiting for, then we will be missing something truly critical, something truly awesome.

I think sometimes that when the actual purpose of the Nativity of Christ is set aside or forgotten, when fasting or almsgiving or worship become “inconvenient,” then we have in essence accepted a snack when we could be having a banquet. I have actually been told that it is too inconvenient to come to church on Christmas morning because that is when presents are to be opened. The King of all has invited us to His table and offers Himself to us as food, having come as a man to Earth for us, and we often instead prefer presents. Why do so many celebrate Jesus’ birthday by opening gifts at home but not by coming to His house and receiving the Gift He Himself offers?

We have accepted a cultural holiday that is essentially another Thanksgiving, but with presents and prettier decorations, when we could instead be open to the coming of the One Who is called by those beautiful antiphons the Wisdom of the Most High, the Lord, the Root of Jesse, the Key of David, the Morning Star, the King of the Nations and Emmanuel—God with us.

In this beautiful, joyful, hopeful Advent season, what are we waiting for? Are we just waiting for Christmas—a beautiful day with family and food and presents? There is nothing wrong with any of that. But could we not be waiting for something more? It is nice to wait for the baby Jesus, but do we also wait for Him as the Messiah? Do we wait for Emmanuel—God with us? With our “Merry Christmas,” do we also say “Christ is born”?

This is why we are Christians, because we believe in all these things. We believe that God became one of us, that He is with us, that He is Emmanuel. Israel waited for Him. The Gentiles hoped for Him. Each of us has waited and hoped for Him. As we now wait and hope again for Him, let this ancient hymn of the Christian West be the song of our hearts:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

To the Lord Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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