JESUS CHRIST IS EMMANUEL
(A biblical refection on the FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT [Year A] – 18 December 2016)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 1:18-24
First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalms: Psalm 24:1-6; Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife. (Matthew 1:18-24 RSV)
In the second reading today, which is the introduction to the “Letter to the Romans”, St. Paul describes himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ who has been called to be an apostle, and specially chosen to preach the Good News that God promised long ago through His prophets”. We might consider the question, where in the scriptures can we find this promise of God? To do this we should bear in mind that there are two ways in which we can get to the meaning of a passage in scripture. There is, first of all, the literal sense, or what message the author wanted to convey when writing it. And then, there is the message which the Holy Spirit wants to convey to us as we read the passage.
The first reading today from the prophet Isaiah, which is known as the “Emmanuel prophecy”, is one of the most famous passages in all the Old Testament that illustrate the two senses in which scripture may be understood. Taken literally, it shows Isaiah urging King Ahaz to have faith in God, that the royal line of David will survive, because the newly wedded queen will give birth to a son, a promise fulfilled in the future King Hezekiah. But if taken in the hidden sense, as St. Paul obviously does, as well as St. Matthew in the Gospel reading, this passage from earliest times had a message also from the Holy Spirit. It can be seen as a solemn promise from God that a Redeemer will be born of a virgin, and that His name will be Emmanuel, meaning “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14).
The challenge of all three readings is that of a call to faith. In each a chosen individual is being asked to make an act of faith. King Ahaz was called upon to have trust in God, and not try God’s patience. St. Paul became aware, again by faith, that his mission was to preach the word to the gentiles, and this, by the way, only after many years’ reflection on the message imparted to him after being struck down while on the road to Damascus. Finally, St. Joseph, as we see in today’s Gospel reading, was the first living person after Mary, who was asked to make an act of faith in Christ. He was called upon to believe that the child Mary was carrying was of divine origin – a most difficult thing for him to do, since it seemed to run counter to his marital rights. Indeed the mystery of a virgin birth must have been a far greater stumbling block for him than for us who have become so familiar with it. We have come to accept that God works in mysterious ways that confound human wisdom, ways demanding reflection and faith. Perhaps Joseph was helped by reflecting on God’s promise to Abraham, one most unlikely to be fulfilled, that he would be the father of a great people, even though he was an old man, and his wife Sarah had been sterile from her youth. Yet fulfilled it was.
Perhaps we too should ask ourselves, what particular act of faith is God asking of me at this time. Part of the answer is to be found in the New Testament where is states that what makes a person acceptable to God is not obedience to the Law, but faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 2:16). This faith is not merely intellectual assent; it is an entrusting of ourselves to Christ, uniting ourselves with Christ. For we believe that, at the first Christmas, not only did the Blessed Trinity come down to us in visible form in God the Son made man, but that in and through the Son made man it has been made possible for us to be drawn into the glorious intimacy of the most holy Trinity.
For us Christmas should be a time of joy, not so much because Christ became one with us, as that He made it possible for us to become one with Him. Yet the whole significance of St. Luke’s account of the birth of Christ is that the people of Israel did not receive the “expected One” when He arrived. We get hints of this from the utterances of the two great prophets of the Old Testament, Jeremiah and Isaiah, who live hundreds of years prior to the birth of Christ. He was treated like an alien by His own people, like a traveler, as Jeremiah puts it, who has stopped but for a night. Again, according to Isaiah, the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s manger, but Israel rejected its Messiah; there was no room for Him at the inn. Do we close our hearts to Christ? Let us listen to St. Paul’s last words to his converts at Corinth, “Examine yourselves to make sure you are in the faith, test yourselves. Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is really in you? If not you have failed the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5). We can put Christ back into Christmas by putting Him first into ourselves.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, You are Emmanuel, meaning God with us. I adore You and bless Your Holy name, dear Lord Jesus, and now I surrender my life to You. I humbly ask that You come and dwell within me forever, so that I may give You glory. Amen.
Cilandak, 17 December 2016
A Christian Pilgrim