This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 1:18–25:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.
A happy Christmas Eve to all our readers. We hope you are preparing your celebrations with family and friends, enjoying the zenith of Advent just as our season of longing and anticipation climaxes with the Christmas celebration.
Family celebrations are often like that, and not just at Christmas, either. We anticipate the reunion of our relatives for weeks and months on end for Thanksgiving, Easter, and even non-holiday get-togethers. Underscoring that anticipation in many cases is the sense of separation — the time we have spent away from loved ones, the return of family members from faraway places, and the joy of reuniting no matter the occasion. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, the old saying goes; while that may or may not be true, absence reminds us of the love we have for one another, and how much we miss it during those separations.
In a sense, this is what Christmas means, too, and the entire arc of salvation history. Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, humanity has kept separating itself from God, and paying the price for our stubbornness. Scriptures are filled with the cycle of devotion, rebellion, and disaster. The Lord sends us messengers and signs, anoints leaders, and offers His bounty repeatedly, only for us to strike out on our own and completely fail.
Even so, the Lord keeps inviting us back for a reunion with Him. In our first reading from Isaiah, the Lord promises that Jerusalem will be vindicated and His people reunited eternally with Him. “For the LORD delights in you and makes your land his spouse,” Isaiah prophesies. “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.” The Lord wants us to return to Him, not as slaves or as chattel but as His family. God yearns for that permanent reunion, and His hand keeps giving us the opportunities to choose it.
And yet, by the time of Caesar Augustus and Herod, the Judeans are living in misery and under the domination of foreigners, and not for the first time. The Judean nation has put its trust in worldly alliances rather than in God. Their king is a lackey of Rome, and their temple leadership has been corrupted by power. The people yearn for a Messiah but have no idea what that means nor the salvation which will come from it.
Even so, the Lord wants to be reunited with His children who have grown so far away from Him that they cannot find their way back. This time, though, the Lord will not wait for us to come to Him — He will come to us, where we live and in the form of a newborn. They shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” And that is truly what happened on that first Advent, as the world held its breath and waited for the way home for our reunion with our God. The Lord came to our home, to love us and to show us the way to His home, and to provide the path for us to find the way there.
As Paul notes in our reading from Acts, God has been with us throughout all of salvation history:
With uplifted arm he led them out of it. Then he removed Saul and raised up David as king; of him he testified, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.’ From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
Through all of these other events, the Lord worked through prophets, judges, and kings to lead His people back into His embrace. With Christ, God chose to send His Son in our form, condescending to embrace us where we live. That is how much He yearns for that reunion. And if our anticipation of salvation is powerful, imagine how deeply the Lord waits for us to return.
They shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Will we declare ourselves with God, too? The Lord came to be with us in this first Christmas; will we take some time to be with Him in this Christmas, too?
May we all find ourselves in that blessed reunion, both in this season and eternity.
The front page image is a detail from “Madonna of the Meadow,” Giovanni Bellini, 1505. On display at the National Gallery in London.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.