We all know the scene: it’s nighttime, probably a little bit chilly. A faithful carpenter and his pregnant fiancé are far from home, living as oppressed but obedient people under Roman law. She goes into labor, but they can’t find a room or any other suitable place for a safe childbirth, so they settle for a barn. There are animals and all the fun sounds and smells that animals make. There’s straw, and dirt, and poop.
It’s an undignified and unsexy entrance into the world for anyone, let alone God himself.
The prophet Isaiah foretold of this baby, and even some of the events surrounding his untimely birth. When the ancient Israelites were going through a bit of a rough patch, God used Isaiah to promise his people a sign, a solution to their problems. A child. Born to a woman – a virgin mother. In a rando village. And she’d call him Emmanuel, which means God with us.
There are a lot of layers here, a lot of ways that this is shocking and terrifying and wonderful good news, but for this moment let’s unpack just one: with. Common folk like you and I have access to more data than ever before. We can access maps, videos, pictures, scathing comments, and the many other wonders of the internet with just some wifi and a few swift clicks. We can connect to friends, family, colleagues, or strangers almost instantly, from nearly anywhere. The concept of being with someone is not novel, and it’s not profound, because we are almost always with other people, even when we’re alone. And yet, all of that data, access, and connection ironically subverts our ability to properly be with God, ourselves, or others. Whether it’s an attention deficit or an existential need for distraction, how often do we trick ourselves into thinking that we with, when we’re really not?
The point of Christmas is that God himself put on skin and entered into space and time, rooting himself in a particular place, with particular people, to lead the way into a new world. And his name, Emmanuel, tells us that Christ’s very ontology is his presence, his with-ness. This would have been shocking for the Israelites, whose God was sequestered to a temple, somewhat fearsome and hardly accessible. But it’s also a little shocking for us too.
One of my favorite Advent hymns is the ancient song, “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” When performed a certain way, it perfectly captures the spirit of the season. It feels somber but hopeful. Bleak, with streams of light trying to break through. As with any great piece of art, this hymn has meant different things to me over the years. For a while, I was simply struck by the way that the lyrics and melody work together to call out for God with us. But this year, the final verse caught my attention in a new way:
Oh come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Emmanuel – the Desire of nations – is with all of us. Even now, Jesus has an uncanny ability to unite people. The Christian family is big and, sometimes surprisingly diverse. When I want to lose sleep at night, I think of all of the kinds of people that, by virtue of our mutual membership in this family, I’m obligated to love. Everyone from Catholics in Chile, to Pentecostals in Norway, to fundamentalists in backwoods Kentucky. Some of them spend their time serving the poor. Some of them are the poor. Some of them write books and essays. Some of them write bigoted remarks in the comments sections of those essays. From doctrine to Starbucks cups, there are countless things that tear Christians apart, but it’s our relentless hope in God with us that consistently brings us together.
And the best news of it all is that someday this unity will extend far beyond the church. Several biblical prophesies speak to this, such as this one from Isaiah:
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
8 Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
9 Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
[Isaiah 43:5-9, NRSV]
Just as Jesus has united an unexpected group of people throughout this age, the Kingdom that we look forward to promises to make this circle even bigger. There are a lot of ways that different people and nations repel and scare us, so it’s simultaneously unnerving and exciting to imagine a time when we will be bound as one, fearlessly embrace each other.
And God will be with us. And we will be with each other.
Merry Christmas, all!