Thursday, December 9, 2021

Katie Snipes Lancaster

The Nativity
Matthew 1:22–23 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Reflection on the Nativity
The word “with” implies intimacy, nearness. Maybe we use it in a chummy sort of way (“Sure, I’ll go with you to the store.”), but even then it implies accompaniment, companionship, sharing a shopping cart, a car ride, or an afternoon. If I say, “I’m with you,” it might mean “I believe in you,” or “I understand,” or literally, “I’m here.” The word “with” holds power and evokes relationship. In that way it can conjure sisterhood from loneliness, and solidarity from heartbreak, even balm in Gilead.

“With” took on new meaning in the pandemic. Suddenly, at least in those early weeks, being with my family meant half a dozen squares on video chat and checking in with my mentors meant taking a walk with them to the lake (but each of us walking our own route from our own homes, while talking via cell phone, instead of walking together). For some the sudden shift to being with those in your household was joy and delight, while for others the house was fiercely empty, or full of conflict, or somehow crowded and lonely at the same time. Collectively we’ve come to know in a new way the value of being “with” one another, whether it is the ability to gather in the Sanctuary, or just sit side by side.

Maybe we can call the Gospel of Matthew the gospel of “with.” Here at the beginning of the story an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that a child will be born who they will call Immanuel, God-with-us. Then the very last verse of Matthew’s whole gospel shows Jesus’ post-resurrection moment of compassion, in which he tries again to comfort his bewildered disciples saying, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And not unrelated, deep in his mystery of love, this One whom we will call Immanuel says to his disciples, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20).

I’m not sure that I ever realized that this verse is the only place where we get the word Immanuel in the New Testament (or as the King James Version transliterates it, Emmanuel, same name, but different translation history). Otherwise it just shows up in chapters 7 and 8 of Isaiah, and technically Matthew is just cribbing from Isaiah anyway. So we have three little references to this term that, for me at least, has epic consequences for my understanding of the divine. “With” is everything to me. My theology is rooted in this vision of God-with-us.

Praying this part of Matthew’s nativity can be wordless because God is already with us, accompanying us, companioning us, understanding us, as near as our next breath, as constant as our heartbeat, embodied within. Nothing can separate us. In all things mundane and spectacular, without ever bowing our head or lifting our voice, we can be gathered into God’s presence because in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, we meet the divine incarnate One who is “with us always, to the end of the age.”

Praying the Nativity
O Christ who was and is and always will be:
be with us today in just the right way,
so that we might recognize you anew.
Amen.