"The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
...Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel."
"Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of The Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home."
"Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures."
So, here we are--God-with-us, a time of signs, dreams and promises. The maiden betrothed becomes Virgin Mother becomes God-Bearer, Theotokos. The Maker of the story writes his place into the story, altering not the story's logic (God always loves us), but the trajectory of events, so that all of Creation will be restored--the vision of Paradise as the place where God might walk with all His creatures in the cool of the afternoon. This sort of reunion is not a third-party affair. The Creator becomes the creature. God chooses to live the drama, so that nothing is abandoned. As Pope Francis said in his recent Wednesday audience, "Jesus is consubstantial with God, the Father, but also consubstantial with his mother, a woman."
Has the mystery of the Incarnation become so trite to us that we lose sight of its arrival and too-quick passing? Why meditate on the mystery of Emmanuel? Two reasons: one is personal and experiential and the other is, naturally, theological. Perhaps it states the obvious to suggest that a hope for a worthwhile answer to the question involves something which must unite the two.
There are certainly enough things that we can't fail to pay the dues on: our spouses, children and grand-children; earning our pay and dealing as best we can with our domestic management; work issues and personal advancement as we try to follow our calling; political and social concerns that we follow because they make us fret over the future. For those of us who teach or manage in schools, as I was reminded when I looked back at what I wrote last year when the violence at Newtown was fresh in our minds, there are other cares that darken the atmosphere and weigh on us, and these seem to recur with unpleasant regularity these days.
Others have felt the busy-ness, weariness and preoccupation that often erode our lives, from the ancient existentialist of Ecclesiastes to the poet Hopkins. First our friend Qoheleth:
"Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike. Human beings no more know their own time than fish taken in the fatal net or birds trapped in the snare; like these, mortals are caught when an evil time suddenly falls upon them." (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
Then we have Gerard Manley Hopkins, the quiet scholar-convert and Jesuit, a career Latin teacher whose notebooks revealed riches of language and insight that place his poetry in the highest esteem. First from “God’s Grandeur:”
"Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."
And from the difficult “Carrion Comfort:”
"Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee."
That we suffer anxiety and frustration does not make us different; it places us in the long procession of humanity whose company Jesus specifically joined, and meant to.
There are many ways to be among those whom Jesus called "the poor" and for whom the prophets were advocates, as "the widow, the orphan and the stranger at the gate." Even those born into privilege are challenged--and it maybe harder for these--to find God-with-us. Ahaz, king of the Southern Kingdom of the fatally divided Israel, is challenged by Isaiah to dream an outside-the-box kind of dream, a new hope for his reign. Judah is threatened, and he lacks the imagination to rally his own people because he trusts in conventional alliances with perfidious neighbors. So Isaiah, inspired, dreams for him, a vision of the true power of God making its silent, graceful entrance into some obscure backwater of the old kingdom--a birth that will make the concerns of Ahaz and all who think that nothing ever changes quite irrelevant.
But the acts God do not just address the concerns of rulers. A young couple, Mary and Joseph, also received the Word, announced by the Angel and realized by the Spirit and power of God. Each in a unique way said yes to something that was truly outside the normal expectation. How their affirmations must have changed things for them! Mary’s life might have might have taken some very unfortunate turns, had her family and neighbors seen in her only a possibly promiscuous young woman, now with an unexpected and “marked” child. Joseph could have been the stern young carpenter resting on his legal and social station, had he made the fateful decision to “expose” Mary to the Law. But they held their Messianic secret closely, and walked the path of their own covenant to raise this child. The dreams they dreamt truly reached to the
How is our response to God-with-us to be evaluated in this personal-theological light? Do we move in the closed circles of our own narrow expectations, limited by today’s weighty concerns? Do we instead dream Isaiah’s dreams, or Mary’s, or Joseph’s? Do we fear to jeopardize our quotidian safety-net? Or, does our path invite the greatness of the Love that came to the Holy Family, with all its risks? Saint Paul, with the persuasion of the deep transformation that began on his “road to Damascus” where he would meet the infant Church, chose to be “all in” with a new mission and a new identity--a “slave of Christ Jesus called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” We understand that he could have done otherwise.
We will, whether we partake in the event or not, ultimately be part of the great events that our doctrine of the dynamic, loving God and God’s entry into our personal and cosmic history affirms. The glory of Christmas is not only that God is with us--that much is given. It is what will happen when we meet God-with-us. We will meet Emmanuel, and we do meet Emmanuel. As Hopkins says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” Will our dreams be great enough so that we can say yes, I will play too?
Prepare well; open your hearts; have a blessed Christmas!