by V.K. McCarty
All this took place to fulfill what had been said by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”—Matt. 1:22-23
May the Lord bless you with peace, and good will, and joy. From Matthew’s Gospel: “Now, the birth of Jesus took place in this way” (1:18). Sometimes I wonder if Christmas doesn’t actually start—and Advent end—the moment we hear those words in Scripture, they are so delightfully familiar. And the Nativity music and the beautiful troparions and the perfume of Frankincense are filling our days, and the sidewalks smell like Christmas trees for sale, and traditional holiday treats are baking, and colored lights bless us from everywhere—here we are at the threshold of God’s unsearchable gift to us of the Incarnation in the birth of the little Christ Child. For soon, so soon we will celebrate the glorification of the Nativity in the flesh by the Most Holy Virgin Mary of our Lord Jesus Christ. And: “the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth contains him in a cave, Him who is utterly uncontainable” (Kontakion of Holy Nativity, Third Tone).
And yet, we do hear a lot of fretting from Joseph in the story as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew. Another of the traditional kontakions explains it for us: “The chaste-minded Joseph, who before had within him a storm of doubting thoughts, now beholds all-glorious things within the divine cave (Kontakion IV, Akathist Hymn to the Nativity of Christ). Another way to reflect on his concern is to see in it Joseph working out his honorable respect of Mary as sacred to God; perhaps that his very young fiancé is already dedicated to God at this point.
The Annunciation has happened, and both he and Mary know that, as Scripture says, she is “with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). Mind you, it is good to remember that this radical and miraculous intervention by God Almighty within the Blessed Virgin Mary via the Holy Spirit is not some kind of painterly seduction by the dove—it is so much more profound than that— but, it is good common sense for us to understand that, as we tell the Christmas story over and over again, and enjoy it in paintings, and especially when we share it with our children.
For in this tiny baby about to be born, Christ the Savior: “God is mingled with human nature,” as our Cappadocian Church Father Gregory of Nyssa says so well, “God is mingled with human nature in order that humanity might be raised up to the height of God” (Homily on the Nativity of Christ). How truly wonderful that is! And how will God do that? The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-25) offers us one of the answers to think about as we navigate these busy days.
The Christ Child’s Birth just about to break into the world is so important that this baby born to the Most Holy Virgin Mary: “will save his people from their sins,” as the Gospel says. (Matt. 1:21) He will be the Messiah. “He becomes flesh; his divine nature unchanged,” John Chrysostom reminds us: “and all sinners come to see the Lamb of God who takes upon himself the sin of the world…O unspeakable grace! for the Ancient of Days has become a child” (Homily on the Nativity of Christ). In fact, he will indeed embody the ancient prophecy from Scripture.
And the announcement of the prophecy from Scripture that is quoted in the Nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew is so solemn that it is easy to hear it in the Handel’s “Messiah” version—and the contralto gets to pronounce it: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel—God with us.”
Now, what does that mean exactly? What is the Gospel saying to us in this prophecy announcement that is being fulfilled? Well, first of all, we can be reminded who is speaking?
For, it is the Lord—it is indeed God speaking to us in the prophecy. And listen to this message, my friends, as we rejoice in understanding it; because then, it will begin to inform the experience of our joy at Pascha to come. For this announcement, “Emmanuel—God with us,” begins an important message for us about God’s Salvation work on our behalf.
Calling our newborn Savior “Emmanuel” is an important Christology marker—it is unraveling for us the holy mystery of Christ. It is assuring us of our glorious Lord’s presence with us in His Church. For after God says, through the angel-messenger, that the child shall be called “Emmanuel, God with us,” then, later when Jesus is teaching, He assures us again and again, “I am with you.” He continues the message. But we heard it just now—and now, we will hear it several times throughout the Gospel—the “God with us” message. Listen for it.
Perhaps the most familiar, the most beloved time we hear it is when Jesus repeats it later in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 18:20), when he comforts his followers, assuring them and us: “Truly, I tell you…where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” God with us. Furthermore, there is the last line of the Gospel. Go look it up today, the last line of the Gospel of Matthew: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). So, this is an important Gospel message, as we are approaching the birth of the Christ Child.
Oh, thank God for the cosmic leap of our dear Lord into the very heart of humankind for our salvation! For ever so soon: “Christ is born, then, go to meet him. Christ is from heaven, glorify Him. Christ is on earth, be ye lifted up” (First Ode of the Christmas Canon). The “God with us” message embedded in the Incarnation proves that a living spark of the Kingdom of God is wired into every one of us with hope, reminding us with each Nativity celebration that we are intimately created in the image and likeness of God. And therefore, we can be assured of the invincibility of Divine Love against all the evil we encounter in the world; for indeed: “the Lord is near” (Phil 4:5). The Christmas glow of all Creation is basking in that love of God.
From an inner spiritual standpoint, look and see how there is a cleaning-up and raising-up of our everyday inner selves which celebrating the coming of the Incarnation brings. Especially now, as the Advent season of light and waiting draws to its climax in the Birth of the Christ Child, the whirlwind of these Christmas days invites us to search our souls and sweep out the little thorny places inside us that have become alienated from God, that so easily get built up from the frustrations of daily life. And when we find ourselves energized in the care and well- being of the spiritual self—even just for the blessed moment of offering up the Jesus Prayer each day—is it not exhilarating to find that God is lifting us up, has always been lifting us up toward the divine? God is with us.
As these busy days are fulfilled with Christmas festivities and the greening of the church, may we invite Him into our hearts, this Forgiver of Sins, that we may be forgiven. As this Advent season comes to its fruition, may we approach the Crèche of Jesus Christ at His Birth with awe and wonder, pondering all these things in our hearts, just as our Lady Mary did. And may this Christmas miracle soon upon us find us more and more like Him, who became a little child for our sake. By the grace of God, may we become more humble, more holy, more happy, more affectionate, more full of “God with us.”
“Thy Sweet Nativity, O Christ our God, is giving rise to the light of wisdom in the world.” (Troparion of the Nativity, Tone 4 )
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.