David Jackson reflects on the readings from Isaiah, Romans and Matthew for the 4th Sunday of Advent.
What insight did Isaiah have into the nature of the dialogue God intended for humanity? He was convinced it would be a close one – so close that it could be compared with the birth of a son whose name would be ‘Immanuel, a name which means God-is-with-us’. This text has long been used by Christians as a prophecy of the birth of Christ of a Virgin. As significantly, it reveals the depth of the longing of God to be so much at one with the human partners in dialogue, that he wants to be ‘with us’ in the closest way possible. Did Isaiah imagine that God would become incarnate in our humanity? Who knows. He goes to the edge of the possession of a mystery and leaves himself and us teetering on that brink.
Paul grasps the universal nature of the message of the birth, life and resurrection of Jesus with precision and instinct. It is through the Risen Christ, he says, that he has received the grace and the mission to preach ‘the obedience of faith to all pagan nations’. Paul is inspired by the inclusive and universal nature of the call to become saints. It is issued to all. The Church recognises that the call of God is issued to all humanity and is manifest in all humanity where it is heeded. The Church has no monopoly on the action of the Spirit or of Christ. It revels in the universality and inclusive spread of the call of the God it has been called to serve as witness. Paul, who could have confined the message to a sect of Jews and new converts, opens it up, driven by the very nature of the dialogue he has experienced as Jewish Scribe and teacher, to all the pagans. No-one is excluded. Paul cannot confine or crimp the desire of God to be ‘Immanuel – God with us’.
Too often when we get tied up in the need to define dogmas about the virgin birth and the exact nature of the role of Mary, Joseph and the Holy Spirit we obscure the core message of Matthew. Lovely are the words he uses to describe Joseph’s reaction to his dream and the message of the angel: ‘When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home’. He took his wife to his home! What a man! Joseph may have been nearer 20 than 30 at the time. This young man cuts through the speculation, fear and apprehension. He takes his wondrously pregnant wife to his home. The child he has been told will be called Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’. That is the crux. Joseph bows and acts. His silent action speaks more eloquently than any words. The dialogue has reached its summation. A baby is to be born and the dialogue between man and God is to enter on a course which will demonstrate and epitomise the real meaning of what is an eternal dialogue.