God With Us
Category: MCC Director's Desk
April 27, 2024

As a father, I can safely say that no other season brings with it the degree of social and familial pressure I experience during the lead up to Christmas. One of the big ones in my family is “when are we putting up the Christmas tree?”

While it’s true that part of the reason we wait longer than most to put up our tree is to highlight Advent as a time of preparation and hopeful anticipation, I also have another practical reason. We have a real Christmas tree and, as a Catholic family, we try to embrace liturgical living celebrating an entire Christmas season concluding with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 8 this year). Trying to keep a tree from becoming a brittle, needle-shedding fire hazard is no small task and an impossible one if we were to put up a tree the first week of December. So, though my kids are not thrilled about it, our waiting is done for a reason and with purpose.

Ours is a culture that doesn’t care for waiting. But waiting and watching can be holy and it’s good for us. If nothing else, it reminds us that we are not God and we live in community dependent on others. Waiting and faith go hand in hand. Consider the generations upon generations who waited, or continue to wait, for the arrival of a Messiah, an anointed one.

Since at least the 8th century, the Roman Catholic Church has prayed during the latter days of Advent a beautiful series of prayers that incorporate ancient biblical imagery to express the messianic hopes found throughout the Old Testament. These “O Antiphons” are sung as part of the church’s Evening Prayer, accompanying the Magnificat canticle. (Luke 1:46-55)

Based on Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 33:22, today’s antiphon is, “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.”

“Emmanuel” means “with us is God” and for the Christian the name is most befitting Jesus Christ who, in the incarnation, is the fulfillment and perfect manifestation of “with us is God.” Into a darkness that, left to our own, we could never pierce, God himself enters in offering a peace, hope, joy and love that would otherwise remain beyond our grasp.

And how is it that Jesus comes to us? The one Christians refer to as Wisdom, Lord and Ruler, King of the Nations, and Savior chose to enter into time and space as a poor vulnerable baby lacking in the things deemed by the world to be of greatest value. What a gift to us that is, reminding us of the things that truly matter and providing us an unobstructed view of what and who incarnated love is to be—no wealth, no pretense, no human esteem, just love.

But the Incarnation is not something we simply remember or celebrate, it’s someone with whom we are called to participate in a life of love. “God with us” challenges us to become an “us with God” accepting the invitation of Christmas to enter into an intimate, eternal but also immediate communion with him.

Jesus Christ came to destroy the chasm between God and us that entered the world, and continues to do so, by sin. Christmas reminds of the path back to the one who creates, loves and saves us. Into the darkness a light has shone calling us to himself, not for his sake but ours.

Christmas provides a beautiful opportunity for us to turn toward God and “incarnate” our faith first by cultivating our relationship with God. One cannot have a relationship of depth and meaning without investing effort to grow that relationship. It requires real work and a sharing of oneself. This is true of our relationship with other people and it’s true of our relationship with God. And he provides us a perfect example of how he wants us to encounter him—with the same vulnerability he freely takes on himself as a baby born over 2000 years ago in the humblest of circumstances. He wants you and me in our brokenness, fear, grieving and discontent. He doesn’t avoid our messiness; he enters into it and asks us to be authentic with him so that he might draw us ever closer.

But faith doesn’t call us to rest with just “Jesus and me” satisfied simply with cultivating our own private space for God within our lives. An interior spiritual life is essential, but if Christmas teaches us anything it must include the fact that within this human family, we are bound to each other and have been gifted with a mission that extends to a limitless horizon as far outward to the world as inward toward our own heart.

Christmas impels us to incarnate in our lives the love born of human flesh in Bethlehem centuries ago. The same Jesus who chose to be born into our chaos and filth said, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-37) This is what it means to not just celebrate but live Christmas.

St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you.” Emmanuel, “God with us,” has chosen you and me to be another Bethlehem, showing forth Love incarnate, born anew in our hearts and offered to the entire world.

So, live this Christmas well. Enjoy the company of family and friends, feast on some Christmas treats and set aside time for prayer encountering the Christ child in your heart and at church. Then, in the days ahead, bring him from the manger into the life of someone in need, making every day Christmas once again.

This article originally appeared in the December 23, 2023 edition of the Helena Independent Record.