Flames from the candles cause light to flash and dance on the faces of my family sitting around the table. I listen to half a sentence my father reads but then my imagination whisks me off to a rocky hillside in Bethlehem. The light of angels’ flash and dance on the weathered faces of the shepherds showing shock and disbelief. They shuffle down the hill towards the dark buildings in the valley. I look up and see my mother shaking her head at me as my hands mess with the wax of the candle. Even as a distracted and fidgety child, celebrating advent was a time for slowing down and joining creation in mindful waiting.
Matthew begins his story of the Messiah highlighting some interesting people in the genealogy of Jesus. Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery. Tamar pretended to be a prostitute. Rahab was a prostitute. David killed a man for his wife. It is through this bloodline that a baby is born to a girl betrothed to a carpenter. Uneducated and unkempt men crowd in the small space to see this baby. Polytheist Persian Astrologists discover a new celestial object that guides them to this young Judean family. The paranoid King Herod kills his own sons and even attempts to murder other children as he scrambles to secure his power and control. Bethlehem was a city full of Jews who desired to be independent of the Roman Empire. This is a story full of the lowly of society. It is full of desperate people in dark and unjust situations who are longing for change.
Then a baby enters this world. A baby named Immanuel. God with us.
However, we tend to clean up this story of “God with us” when we skip over the sexual sins, murder, and betrayal found in Jesus’ family history, instead diving into the story of a young innocent girl; when we clean up the surroundings, concluding that the excruciating birth by a virgin teenage girl produces a baby who doesn’t cry; when Mary isn’t a sleep deprived new mother who is learning how to nurse her baby for the first time; when the shepherds aren’t men accustomed to being on the outskirts of society; when a narcissistic and paranoid leader is never someone we would follow; when we brush over the fact that God uses astrology to guide the Magi to the Christ child.
We clean it up, and then hurry to invite God with us. Immanuel, God with us, but only when we polish up our story.
But maybe it’s God with us in the process. Maybe God with us isn’t the immediate gratification that comes after presenting a refined outside. Jesus comes from a line of murderers, adulterers, unloved and unlikely people. He is born into an environment that lacks wealth and is among a people who are subject to a foreign empire. He is surrounded by those who would never surround a King. He begins his life on earth as a human; an undeveloped, helpless baby who relies on the guidance and assistance from a teenage mother and carpenter father.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:12-13
It is in this process that Immanuel invites us into hope for the restoration of a messy world, reconciliation for broken people, redemption for sinners, and the righting of an unjust system. Immanuel brings us a hope that calls us to action–action that brings the world back to how it was originally intended to be. Hope for our personal lives, for our immediate community and hope for a better world, a new world.
Faith in this “God with us” motivates us to work towards what we hope for and through love we introduce this hope to our world. When the darkness in the world is all we can see, let us remind ourselves of this hope and that light has entered and will come back fully into this world. Let us love like Jesus loved. Let us be Immanuel to others. In this season of reflection and slowing down to remember the story, let us join in creation’s hope for the here and the now and the not yet.
Nilah MacLean, New City Stories Contributor