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The word this week

At Christmas we are not bystanders

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

By on Monday, 20 December 2010

Nativity, by Philippe de Champaigne (CNS photo/Philipp Bernard, Reunion des Musees Nationaux/Art Resource)

Nativity, by Philippe de Champaigne (CNS photo/Philipp Bernard, Reunion des Musees Nationaux/Art Resource)

“The Lord himself will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us.’ ”

The words of the Prophet Isaiah, the sign given to King Ahaz, describe the God whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. Significantly, the sign was not to be a dramatic demonstration of power. The sign, when it came, would summon us to believe in the God who is with us, whose love would be revealed in the child born of the maiden.

The reaction of Ahaz, a king who, in the words of Isaiah, had tried the patience both of God and man, is not without significance as we approach Christmas. Ahaz had refused to entrust himself and his nation to the God who had called them into being. Political success and power brokering had become the driving force in Ahaz’s kingdom. His faith was in the kingdom that he would build rather than the God who had promised to be with his people. Ahaz got on with the life before him, refusing God any presence in its values and decisions. It was not so much, in his own words, that he did not want to put God to the test. He simply found no place for God in his busy life. He believed in God, but not a God seeking involvement.

Like Ahaz, we can live life and faith in different worlds. Just as Ahaz rejected the words of the prophet as an unwelcome intrusion into affairs of state, so we in our daily lives can distance ourselves from the Christ we proclaim in faith. The sign given by Isaiah, the God Emmanuel who would be at the heart of his people, broke down the false divisions between heaven and earth, life and faith. The beginning of Matthew’s infancy narrative is a stark contrast to the scepticism of King Ahaz. When Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit, Joseph, in a very difficult situation, remained open to God and those around him.
Whatever moved Joseph at the pregnancy of Mary it was not resentment. He wanted to spare Mary unwelcome and hostile publicity.

If we are to be sensitive to the presence of Christ among us, then we, like Joseph, must abandon the self-centred hurts and preoccupations that can so easily dominate our lives. It is only through such humility that we, like Joseph in his dream, become a part of God’s unfolding purpose. Joseph was not to become a bewildered bystander. He was to take Mary and her child to his home, to live a life totally committed to the child that would be born of Mary. In the words of the Gospel, he took Mary and her unborn child to his home. As we approach Christmas we are not bystanders. We, no less than Joseph, are called to a commitment that embraces the whole of life. Long ago King Ahaz had walked away from the promise that God would be with his people. Joseph embraced that promise with humility and trust.

St Paul, writing at the end of his life, was overwhelmed by the truth we are so soon to celebrate. At Bethlehem Jesus entered our history, became a part of our broken stories. As Son of God in power he enables us to live in his holiness. Truly he is Emmanuel, God with us.