December 22, 2013
“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24)
Our focus during the first three weeks of Advent has been the coming of Jesus and preparing ourselves for that occasion through reflection and repentance. Today, as we anticipate the birth of Christ, we must take this one step further: anticipating the coming of God, we must prepare a place within ourselves to receive the awaited God.
The Old Testament is full of characters who have been given intentionally meaningful names, but the most relevant of these to our Christian faith comes from this passage in Isaiah: “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). We will hear this echoed by Matthew in the gospel passage, but the name Immanuel, “God is with us,” immediately grabs our Christ-centered attention.
Yet Isaiah is writing here in a historical setting, and while he does so in the context of prophesy, it is much more nearsighted than something as monumental as God dwelling on earth in human form. He writes in a period of war and turmoil. But in an allegorical sense, this passage perfectly describes the human condition. Humanity is in a figurative state of turmoil and rebellion against God, prompting God to come and be with us for our salvation. As Christians, we have a bit of difficulty relating to the essence of this passage – we know what happens hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote this text. Just as the people Isaiah was writing to many centuries ago, we also must find hope in this text.
How can you reconcile the literal and historical interpretations of this passage?
How can you, as today’s collect asks, prepare yourself so that God may “find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 212)?
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
“Restore us O God of Hosts, Show us the Light of your countenance and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:3).
The above passage is so important to the writer of this psalm that it is repeated twice more, in verses 7 and 18. Continuing the theme of salvation in light of pain and unrest in Isaiah, the psalmist repeats this plea to God for relief.
Several verses of this psalm are directly addressed to God, essentially reminding God of part of the Abrahamic covenant: God promised a special relationship with God’s chosen people, and the psalm writer pleads with God to remember that promise. This reminder comes in the form of explaining the hardships and pain that God’s people are facing: “You have fed them with the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5) and “our enemies laugh us to scorn” (Psalm 80:6). Essentially, the psalmist is being very blunt with God: If we are so special in your sight, why are we suffering so? “Restore us, O God of hosts,” to that special place of covenant between God and chosen people. We are those people. In the form of Jesus, God has indeed affirmed this covenant, but now we are the ones who must be reminded of that special relationship, and this holy season is the time for us to remember that promise.
Think of something you are struggling with in your life. How can you find the Light of Christ to help you with that struggle?
Imagine yourself as Mary (or Joseph), knowing that God will soon be entering the world through the child you are about to bear. How might this psalm speak to you?
Paul reflects in this text to what God “promised beforehand through his prophets” (Romans 1:2) – so there is little doubt that passages such as that in Isaiah are critical to the understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. What is new here, of course, is the understanding that Christ also calls for the inclusion of gentiles within the faith. This should not be entirely surprising in this specific context; in writing to the Romans, Paul would have expected an audience of gentiles and needed to make it clear from the beginning that they, too, have a part in this story.
In a sense, this is a major contrast to the theme for this day; rather than being inward-looking to find a place within ourselves for Christ, Paul reminds us that we also must be mindful that Christ was born and died for all. These are indeed comforting words: What is asked of us in the coming of Jesus is asked of us all, and we can all share in the reward that is to come.
What does Paul’s message of inclusiveness mean to you?
The Gospel of Matthew begins with a long genealogy and other accounts to link Jesus to the God and prophesies of the Old Testament. And just to make the point perfectly clear, we receive a direct quotation – complete with a translation for the name “Emmanuel” – from Isaiah. The writer of this gospel is making a clear connection here – the God of Israel, of Moses and Abraham and Isaiah is not only the same God of our faith, but is the very God that came to be with us on earth. But the gospel here also tells us that this child – Immanuel, Jesus, the Messiah – comes by way of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that is the distinction between the understanding of Isaiah and of Matthew; and it is through that same Spirit that we can find God among us today.
How can we open ourselves to let the Holy Spirit work within us?
The birth of the Christ is almost here. Are you ready?