The Sign of Immanuel

Advent IV      December 18th, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16               Matthew 1:18-25

Well, that is certainly a familiar story we just heard as today’s gospel reading. Moving towards Christmas, we hear Matthew’s account of the origin of Jesus, of his conception and birth.

And yet maybe not so entirely familiar. Because as well known as a Bible passage may be, it can always happen that a single phrase suddenly jumps out at us in a new way, and we notice something we had never noticed before.

For me, this week, the phrase was that “Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” You know, we think we know this story, because the version we have in our minds is from Luke’s gospel, how the angel visits Mary and announces that she will bear God’s son. It is the subject of thousands of old paintings: Mary sitting in her home, praying or reading or doing needlework or doing a crossword, a single white lily in a pot beside her; and before her, the archangel Gabriel, with his earnest and strange message. And Mary, hearing what he has to say, demurely concurs: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

But how differently Matthew tells the story. Here there is no annunciation to Mary – it is only Joseph who gets the visit from the angel, afterwards. Mary is not asked, not even tipped off. She is just “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” And indeed, before the angel comes to explain about the Holy Spirit, she is simply found to be with child; she and Joseph are simply confronted with the terrifying and confusing reality.

And so, in place of the classic annunciation scene that Luke paints for us, Matthew gives us something more like this picture, which I came across this past week: a picture of Mary, again painted like she is in one of the old masters, but reacting in shock and confusion to a very modern pregnancy test. It is a provocative image – some might find it tasteless or blasphemous, I suppose, though I don’t think it is meant that way. As I pass it around, pay attention to the emotional reaction it calls up in you.((From a billboard campaign by St. Matthew-in-the-City, an Anglican church in Auckland, New Zealand.))

St. Matthew-in-the-City, an Anglican church in Auckland, New Zealand, has attracted controversy for this advertisement of the Virgin Mary with a positive pregnancy test.

This is a fully human Mary, shocked and terrified by news that, at least for the time being, is anything but welcome. A Mary like thousands of women today and in any age, all the more confused because she honestly can’t understand how she could possibly be pregnant, a Mary who must feel suddenly very much alone, very overwhelmed. It is perhaps that painful vulnerability as much as anything that makes this a difficult picture to look at.

That, coupled with the way in which the Christian tradition has placed Mary on a pedestal, far above human emotions like terror, shame, and confusion – and above biological processes such as pregnancy. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth has had that unfortunate side-effect, that we think of the incarnation of our Lord as somehow not quite completely incarnation, not quite a matter of flesh and blood and all the difficult emotions that go along with flesh and blood.

Perhaps it is helpful to make a couple of clear distinctions about what we don’t mean when we confess, in the Creed, that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. First of all, this statement, as part of the Creed, is really a statement about Jesus more than Mary. Mary herself is not an object of belief, much less so her sexual history. The point of the Virgin Birth is to say something about Jesus, namely that he was not just another Joe like you and me – not just another Joe – but that he was the presence of the divine among us.

The second distinction is that when we hear of Mary being pregnant “by the Holy Spirit”, this is a metaphor that expresses a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. What it does not mean is that God fathered a child with Mary in any literal sense the way we understand these things to work. Let me put the question this way: whose DNA did Jesus bear? That of his mother, of course, but beyond that, we are not supposed to believe that he had God’s DNA as the other half. Ultimately, the question is unanswerable, and perhaps meaningless: but it can help us see what it does not mean.

Now this may sound like modern liberal skepticism, but I assure you, it is ancient Christian orthodoxy. The classical world was full of stories of gods doing exactly this, coming down to earth in the dead of night and fathering children with human women. The off-spring of such liaisons were demi-gods, literally half-human half-divine, getting their DNA from both sides, if you like. With these stories known to everyone, the fathers of the church were very anxious to be clear that this is not who Jesus was. The Council of Chalcedon, the fourth of the great ecumenical councils that defined the doctrine of the church, makes it very clear that we are not to think of Jesus as half-human and half-divine, but as both fully human and fully divine. Fully human, in his DNA; fully divine, in that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell among us as one of us.((For the connection of the text to the Chalcedonian definition, I am indebted to Charles W. Wood, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, pp 92-96.))

Chalcedon goes on to speak of the conception of Jesus: that he was generated of the Virgin Mary at a particular point in history; but that he was generated by the Father eternally, from before all time. In other words, God does not become the Father through what happened to Mary – God has always been Father, Son, and Spirit through the eternal mystery of the Trinity. But that’s another sermon.

And as for that Old Testament prophesy from Isaiah, which Matthew quotes, and which we heard as our first reading today:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’

Hebrew scholars are pretty unanimous that Isaiah is not speaking of a miraculous virgin birth, and so he is predicting the birth of Jesus. The word he used meant simply “young woman” (there’s another Hebrew word for virgin which he didn’t use). Isaiah is speaking to the king in a moment of national crisis, as armies are massing on their borders preparing an invasion. The king is in a panic. And Isaiah comes to him with a message of hope. “See that woman there, the one expecting a child. That child’s name shall be Immanuel, (which simply means God is with us in Hebrew), and that child is the sign of hope God is sending. By the time it is weaned, the danger will have passed, and it will have good things to eat.”

And so the sign of Immanuel, which Isaiah speaks of, is not some supernatural occurrence, but a much more everyday miracle: it is the miracle of the birth of a child in the midst of warfare. It is a miracle which still happens, over and over again – and yet it is no less miraculous for all that. It is the eternal rebirth of hope, in a world of hopeless violence.

So I think that maybe Matthew did get it right, after all, that this prophesy of Isaiah is a clue to understanding the birth of Jesus. Of course Jesus is unique and special, he is fully divine. But he is also fully human, and so he, and his parents, shared in the struggle of so many in our world. And that too is Immanuel, a sign that God is with us.

In Mary’s terror and confusion and shame, in the shock that this picture so clearly shows, when she must have felt so completely alone: God was with her. And the child she was carrying, a child who was not expected, or planned, or wanted – that child would grow to be such an amazing blessing for her, and for the world.

In Joseph’s pain and confusion and sense of betrayal – there too, God was with him. And in the struggles of the night he found the courage and vision to understand that this child was a gift of God, and that his decision to stand by Mary would enrich his life beyond anything he could imagine.

In the pain and terror of so many young mothers, so many couples in difficult situations, in the babies being born this day in the burnt out shell of Aleppo – there too, God is with us, God is with us in the courageous, oh-so-vulnerable act of defiance that is life, a sign in the midst of the mess and horror that we have made of things, that God is still with us.

And in our own moments of fear and confusion and despair, in the times we don’t know the way forward with the mess we have made, in the times we feel so completely alone – there too, God is with us, inviting us to risk a new beginning, to trust in God’s future. That is the sign of Immanuel – and as common and everyday as it may be, it is the greatest of miracles. And that too is what we celebrate this Christmas season. Amen.