O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
As we approach the Feast of the Incarnation we sing hymns and carols that call the child born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem “Lord.” But we are told that more and more, the use of that title for Jesus of Nazareth, and even for God the Father, and/or the Blessed Holy Spirit, is outdated, sexist, and perhaps even a sort of theological “microagression” against some of the folks in the pews.
But “Lord” is the title that the Hebrews chose to substitute for the name of the one God, the maker of heaven and earth. The tradition is that there is only one God, so no name is needed to distinguish one god from another, as in other ancient polytheistic religions. In Exodus 3:13ff, when Moses asks God whom he shall say has sent him to the Israelites, God replies with three answers: “I am what I am,” then simply “I AM,” and finally “YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Now some have held recently that God thus revealed his name to Moses and that it is a good idea to use a guess at how YHWH should be pronounced as a name for the deity instead of the title “LORD” (usually as Jehovah or, more recently, Yahweh). The sacred tetragrammaton, yod hay vav hay (YHWH), however, was never and is never pronounced by Jews, not just because of the 3rd commandment against taking the name of the LORD in vain, but more importantly, because the right relationship between the one God and his people is that of lord and servant. Not “Lord” as in “Lord and Lady so-and-so in England” but as in Adonai in the Hebrew Scriptures, Kyrie in the Septuagint and the New Testament, and Dominus in the Vulgate. The one God is the Lord who commands and the one whom his people are called to obey.
Furthermore, the generic Hebrew word for god, El, was also the name of the chief of the Canaanite pantheon. To avoid confusion, the plural elohim was substituted whenever it made sense to remind us that the one God does not need a name but is Lord of all. In the Revised Standard Version, and other translations, whenever the sacred tetragrammaton YHWH appears in the text, the letters LORD is rendered in all capitals in English, to distinguish it from the Hebrew word adonai.
Consider the words of the mother of our Lord. When Mary of Nazareth accepts the call of the angel Gabriel to bear the Christ, she says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” One could translate the Greek to “servant” instead of handmaid, but the relationship Mary is entering into remains the same. She signs up to be the servant of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God of her fathers and mothers, like the prophets who were before her. Isaiah wrote hundreds of years before in his oracles about the suffering that the servant of the LORD would be called to undergo for the sake of his people. Mary knew the tradition into which she was entering by accepting God’s call. She, of her own free will, became an ebed Adonai, a servant of the Lord, and is thus a model for all of us, whatever God’s call to us may be.
So as we contemplate Mary’s courage and obedience this Advent, and as we sing the familiar carols and hymns about Christ the Lord, let us realize and rejoice in just what we are saying. That baby is somehow the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, here with us: Emmanuel. God loved the world and each of us that much, “to be born of a woman” and “to live and die as one of us.” As the carol puts it: “Lo! Within a manger lies He who made the lofty skies.”
O come, O come Emmanuel.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come.