(Isa.7:10-14; Rom.1:1-7; Mt.1.18-24)
At Christmas we often sing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’. This ancient carol refers to Isaiah’s prophecy about a virgin giving birth to a son who will be called Emmanuel (Is.7:14).
In today’s Gospel, Matthew repeats these words as he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He wants us to know that Jesus is Emmanuel, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prediction.
Why, then, don’t we just call Jesus Emmanuel?
The reason is the angel Gabriel’s instruction to Joseph, ‘You shall name him Jesus’ (Mt.1:21; Lk.1:31). Jesus is his given name, but the name Emmanuel still applies in the same way that some 200 other names and titles have been ascribed to him in Scripture, including Word of God, Bread of Life, Light of the World, Living Water, Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd. Each of these names describes a different aspect of Jesus’ identity and work in our world.
Indeed, the name Emmanuel encapsulates all these other titles, because it means ‘God is with us’. And considered together, they all mean the same as Jesus, which means ‘God saves’.
God sent his only Son to live among us, to show us how to live and how to love (Jn.3:16; 10:10). Sadly, we too often forget this and we treat God as a remote figure who abandons us to our struggles. But the essential message of Christmas, and indeed of all Scripture, is that God is always with us and he really does care.
In the Old Testament, God promised Abraham and his descendants, ‘I will be with you, and I will bless you’ (Gen.12:1-3). Abraham’s grandson Jacob wasn’t so sure, however. So God replied to him in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob, I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you go’. When Jacob woke up he thought, ‘Surely God is in this place and I didn’t know it’ (Gen.28:15-16).
When the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, they also asked if God was with them (Ex.17:7). He was, of course, and he gave them many signs, including water and food and he even parted the waters for them.
And in our First Reading today, King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble and he, too, doubts God’s presence. But Isaiah encourages him to trust in God, and he promises that God will send a sign in the form of a child who will be called Emmanuel, for God is always with us (Is.7:13-14).
This is the whole point of Christmas. It’s a reminder of God’s living promise that he’s always with us, in the good times and in the bad. And he’s certainly with us right now.
Avery Dulles SJ said, ‘The incarnation does not provide us with a ladder by which to escape from the ambiguities of life and scale the heights of heaven. Rather, it enables us to burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity.’ [i]
We won’t see God walking through our door, but his spirit will always be around us (Jn.14:16). That’s the important thing about our Christian faith, for ours is a spiritual life. God is Spirit, and for us to live in his presence we need to live spiritually. This means we need to use our minds, our hearts and our wills to establish a meaningful relationship with him. [ii]
In 2015, in Madison Square Garden, Pope Francis said that one special quality of God’s people is their ability to see, even in ‘moments of darkness’, the light which Christ brings.
God’s faithful people, he said, can recognise God’s living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. For Jesus is Emmanuel, the God who walks alongside us and gets involved in our lives, in our homes and in the midst of our ‘pots and pans’. [iii]
When the Dutch writer Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was a little girl, her father used to tuck her into bed at night. He talked and prayed with her, and laid his big hand on her little face. Later, as an adult, when she was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, she asked God to tuck her in and lay his hand on her face. ‘That would bring me peace, and I would be able to sleep,’ she wrote. [iv]
Jesus was there with her. He helped Corrie survive the most awful of times.
When we actively live in God’s presence, we start to recognise all that he does for us. He encourages us (Josh.1:6), he strengthens us (Is.41:10), he comforts us (Jn.14:16-18), he protects us (Jer.15:20), he heals us (Jer.30:17), he provides for us (Ps.113:6-9) and he guides us through the darkness (Ex.13:21; 2 Sam.22:29).
What a remarkable gift Jesus is to us! He is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
This Christmas, let’s welcome Jesus with open arms.
[iv] Corrie ten Boom, Each New Day. Revell, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2013.