“Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
Emmanuel is not the name by which we have come to know the Messiah, but it is how we can understand his mission. Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled because in Jesus, God has become one of us. Jesus has experienced the unconditional acceptance of a mother and embraced the gift of friendship. But he has also gone through the pain of rejection and been wounded by betrayal. Jesus has climbed the heights and plumbed the depths of human experience so that wherever we may find ourselves, we can rest in the name Emmanuel, God is with us.
But what does “with” mean?
“With” means we will never be alone. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus proclaims, and his life testifies to that. In Jesus, God is ever close, always within reach. But we must still reach out to him. “With” cannot be a one-way relationship. It has to be two-way.
“With” is not one-way; nor is it one-time. “With” is an enduring presence. Through our ups and downs, God journeys with us. But we must also journey with him. The God who came as an infant on the first Christmas did not remain a baby. He grew up and became a man. The baby gurgles and coos and smiles; the man calls us out, stresses the constant need for conversion and repentance, and asks us to go out of ourselves. We must always remember that Emmanuel is not just God-with-me but God-with-us. God is concerned not just with my dreams and my desires; God sees the bigger picture, the community around us, those we love, those we could not care less about, and those who persecute us. The man still invites us to cast our burdens upon him, but he also tells us to take up our cross (which is many times the people around us) and follow him. “With” means being assured of support, but “with” also means being ready for challenge.
Educational psychologists say that for learning and growth to happen, there must be a balance of support and challenge. If there is only support, we will become complacent and just stay in our comfort zones. But if there is only challenge, we may not develop a strong enough foundation that can serve not just as our base but as our launch pad.
I do not want to turn this reflection into a grammar lesson, but to go deeper into what “with” means, we have to dive into the intricacies of language.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is presented as God-with-us when he is born and God-with-us even as he ascends. At the end of Matthew, Jesus still promises us, “Behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.” The Greek word translated as “with” is meta, a preposition that means in company with or together with.
In John, in the Gospel we hear on Christmas day, Jesus is presented as the Word-with-God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But here, the Greek word translated as “with” is a different preposition – pros. Pros is not just alongside; it is a preposition of direction. Pros is movement towards a destination. Pros is not a static sitting side-by-side but a dynamic running towards what you are meant for. Pros has been translated as “with,” but we must make sure its powerful thrust and persistent drive are not lost.
“With” must be taken to mean not only that God is always beside us but that we must always be going towards God.
Many Christmases ago, I celebrated Mass in a Carmelite monastery where I was struck by a strange nativity scene. The nuns had placed the belen not near the entrance of the chapel nor at the foot of the altar with Mary, Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds, and everyone else surrounding Jesus. No, their waist-high images of the characters in the Christmas story were arranged as if they were marching down the center aisle with the infant Jesus in front. It may not be exactly how the prophet envisioned it in the Book of Isaiah (chapter 11, verse 6), but there it was fulfilled: “And a little child shall lead them.”
As I consecrated the bread and the wine, I realized the theological statement the nuns were making. Jesus did not come so that we can just gather around him in a chorus of oohs and aahs. Jesus came to gather us and bring us to the altar of sacrifice. As I lowered the paten and the chalice, my eyes focused on the baby Jesus in front of me, still in the manger but already leading angels and sheep – all the creatures of heaven and earth – to follow in the offering he made: “This is my Body, and this is my Blood. This is my all, and my everything, I now give to you.”
The folly of the unusual arrangement of that nativity scene became evident during Communion. People had to weave through the images, and I was afraid that the senior citizens would trip over the figures and knock down not only the plaster shepherds but also the people in front of them. To say that it was quite a hazardous Communion line would have been an understatement.
But where there was foolishness, there was also wisdom. I finished giving the Body of Christ and turned around. The Body of Christ was before me again, crucified yet still giving. There on the cross, the words “This is my Body broken for you; this is my Blood poured out for you” hung enfleshed. It was not only to the altar but to the throne of sacrifice that Jesus was leading us. People stumbling and falling on the way to the cross – even the wisest of men – should this not be expected as we tread this precarious path?
As I purified the vessels, my gaze traveled again to the pilgrimage Jesus was leading to the altar and the cross. Even if we stumble and fall, trip and knock down others along the way, Jesus is still not going to abandon us. As if on cue, the nuns started singing a well-known Taize chant. “Christ before us.” And he will always be in front of us blazing the trail. “Christ behind us.” And he will always be like the wind at our backs giving us an extra push. “Christ under our feet.” And he will always be supporting us and carrying us. As I put away the chalice and the paten, I remembered that we had just taken Communion. We had just received the Body of Christ. Jesus was also in us empowering us so that we can bring his presence to others, so that through us, Christ can be before others, behind others, under others.
This is what “with” means. This is what Christmas means.