“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus…” (vs. 21)
“…and they shall name him Emmanuel...” (vs. 23)
Nostalgia, bucolic carols and a myriad of Christmas pageants have softened the story of Jesus’ birth and left us with a tableau that is gentle, sweet, and sedate. Unlike Luke’s story of the Nativity, around which many of the nostalgic images of the birth of the Christ child have been wrapped, Matthew’s story reminds us that Jesus was born into a real world, with real challenges, and real struggles.
While Matthew’s story is much shorter, his brief narrative captures the scandal and the power of Jesus’ birth. A young, engaged girl is “found” to be pregnant. No doubt, her “condition” was the subject of the whisperers and gossips. I can hear them now, “A child of the Holy Spirit… riiiight…” Joseph decides to do whatever he can to cover up the shame of it all. It was a real mess. When the story continues in Chapter 2, we meet Magi from the East who alarm Herod, a despotic ruler known for his cruelty, with their news of a king’s birth, and we hear how he massacres all the infants of Bethlehem to appease his paranoia. Jesus and his family barely escape the bloodbath. There is nothing sedate, sweet or gentle about Matthew’s story!
At the center of these swirling stories of shame and cruelty, the baby is named. Twice.
The first name, “Jesus,” means “The Lord Saves.”
The second, from Isaiah’s prophesy, “Emmanuel,” means “God is with us.”
This is a child of promise for a world filled with messes, cruelty, violence and despots. This is a child born for all those the world would shame, reject, hate and oppress. This is a child who was born for unwed mothers, children who die from violence and abuse, and fathers who struggle to do what they think is the “right thing.” This is a child who was born for the likes of Mary and Joseph who could find no place in the inn, and for all those who yearn for a place of hospitality and welcome, for poor workers like the shepherds who long for peace and justice, and for everyone who is searching for a little hope in a world all too often shrouded by sorrow and death.
The babe of Bethlehem, God with us, grew up to heal (save) this broken world and to assure us that, as Romans 8 says, nothing can separate us from the love of God… not even a horrific execution on a Roman cross.
In a few night’s time, many of us will gather in the quiet of the night around flickering candles to remember the birth of our savior, and rejoice that, in Christ, God is truly with us. Christ’s birth didn’t take away the messiness of life, but in and through him, our God dove right into it, and for that, we can all be eternally grateful.
Praying you all have a blessed Christmas,
Thanks for reading! Happy New Year!