Immanuel. A compound word in Hebrew: Immanu – with us. El – God. God is with us. It comes from the prophet Isaiah who tried to assure King Ahaz that he didn’t need to strike an alliance with Egypt against the northern kingdoms of Syria and Ephraim. All he had to do was nothing. Trust the Lord. In nine short months, the time it takes for a young woman to conceive and bear a son, you will know Immanuel, God is with us. And in less than twelve years, before Immanuel knows right from wrong, the two kings you are so concerned about will be dust, because Immanu-el – God is with us.
Yes, I know that prophesy means a lot more than a timetable for the Syro-Ephraimite war, but that’s what it meant to King Ahaz. But like all prophesies, there is an element of “but wait, there’s more” to them. Some 700 years later, the word-sign of Immanuel got dusted off and fulfilled. A young woman in Nazareth did indeed conceive a child in her virginity – a biological impossibility but a divine possibility – and that Child was in the most literal of senses “Immanuel,” God with us, the Word become Flesh who pitched his tent among us.
Who could possibly have known? To look at this whole family scene, you would have concluded something entirely different. Imagine your daughter comes home and declares that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Or taking it to the level of today’s Gospel, your wife comes home with the very same story. Your first reaction is not likely “Immanuel,” God is with us. I can be reasonably certain of that, because, after all, we are reasonable people, and we know that virgins don’t conceive. It’s basic Biology 101.
Mary knew that too. She may come from Nazareth, but she’s no country bumpkin when it comes to the facts of life. When the angel Gabriel told her that she would conceive and bear a son, the first thing she asked was “How can this be?” Mary knew how babies were conceived, and she knew she was in no position to conceive one, and so she had to ask, “How? How is this going to happen?” And she doesn’t get much of an answer from the Gabriel, given that this is certainly one of those “life changing” events. You’d thiink she’d get a little more information that “the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you and glory of God will shadow over you.” But that’s all she gets – a word-sign, a promise that God is with her and her child is God with us.
Put yourself in Joseph’s sandals. What is he supposed to do? He knows the child isn’t his, yet he’s a just and honorable man. He could have made a public fuss over this. Word travels fast in backwater towns like Nazareth. He could have asserted his legal rights and divorce her publicly, putting the gittim, the legal documents of divorce into her hand and declaring three times “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” in front of three rabbis and eyewitnesses. And he would have been justified in doing so.
But Joseph doesn’t do that. He’s a just and honorable man. He decides to divorce her secretly, out of the public eye. He’s willing to take the criticism, endure the sideways glances from the elders at the gate and the women at the well. They would think – wrongly – that Joseph had decided not to go through with the marriage and kicked Mary to the curb. Joseph was willing to absorb Mary’s shame and take it on himself. He would be the bad guy, and she would be free to go and marry the rightful father of her child. Who knows, it might even have been bad for business. Word would get around about what Joseph and done to that nice girl who was even pregnant with his child, no less. There would be boycotts of the carpenter’s business, work would slow down, the bank account depleted. Joseph’s name would be ruined. All on account of Immanuel.
Until one night in a dream, Jospeh has a vision of an angel of the Lord who said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” That’s all Joseph received from God. A vision in a dream. Mary at least got a visible angel with a name. Joseph, like his dreamer old testament namesake, just gets a dream. And that was sufficient for Joseph. He did what the angel commanded him to do. He did it because he trusted God, that nothing is impossible with God, and that God was with him. Immanuel.
God wanted his only-begotten Son to have a father. He could have gotten by with only a mother. All He needed was the Virgin Mary to be the servant-vessel of the Incarnation. But God wanted His Son to have a father who would provide and care for Him in Bethlehem, in Egypt, in Nazareth. Take Him to the work shop and on the job sites in town. Bring him to the synagogue and the temple. Provide for Him and protect Him and raise Him in the fear of the Lord. A father who would give Him the name Jesus at His circumcision, the highest and holiest hame given among men, for He would save His people from their sins. As a son of David, Joseph would also give legitimacy to Jesus’ claim to the throne of David as the lawful “son of David.” That was determined through the father.
If Mary is known as the “mother of God,” then Joseph should be known as the “surrogate, stand-in father of God.” Mary experienced the truth of her Son, but Joseph has to believe that truth on the thinnest shred of evidence – the word of an angel in a dream. Joseph is the pattern of silent, faithful fatherhood. He never says a word. There isn’t a single sentence from Joseph recorded in the Scriptures. His actions do the speaking, and they speak volumes of faithfulness.
You have to suspect that there were doubts in Joseph’s mind. Can this really be so? Can a young woman, my wife, conceive in her virginity? So many couples have difficulty conceiving in the ordinary way, and this one conceives entirely on her own, without a man? Woman’s offspring pure and fresh. Or is he? Can it be? Did Joseph lie awake late at night and look at his bride sleeping soundly next to him and wonder? In the eastern iconography of the Nativity, Joseph is always depicted off in the corner, wrapped up in doubt with the devil whispering in one ear. He had to have doubted, and who would have blamed Him?
Curiously, Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel after the incident in the temple when Jesus was twelive years old. He is never even mentioned in John’s Gospel. Perhaps he died shortly after. Now that Jesus had arrived at manhood, he no longer needed this father surrogate. Perhaps Jesus took care of His mother for much of his young adult life, making that scene at the cross where He entrusts her to John as her son all the more poignant. There’s so much we don’t know and would like to know. The Christmas story and those iconic nativity scenes have sharp angles and edges to it. It’s an uncomfortable story at many levels, a story of lives turned upside down by the simple fact that when Immanuel shows up our lives are never the same again.
If you have a nativity scene as part of your Christmas decorations, pay particular attention to Joseph today. He always gets kind of passed over. Our focus, rightly so, is on the divine Child in the manger. And then on His mother, naturally. And the shepherds and the angels. And later, the wise men from the east. The story is certainly rich in characters, and they all have their place and purpose. But we tend to forget about this silent, faithful man who heard the Word and did what he was told to do. I never quite know where to put Joseph in the manger scene. I usually put him next to and slightly behind Mary in the greatest supporting role there ever was. Sometimes I put him opposite Mary, with the Child in the manger in between them, because if ever a child got between husband and wife, this One did.
Spend a little Joseph time is these last few days of Advent preparation. And ponder in your own hearts the doubts you have, the inconveniences and changes in plans Immanuel has brought to your life, and what your own place and purpose is in this great story of salvation that centers on this Child who is Immanuel, God with us.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” An old, dusty prophesy, first spoken to an evil king who was more worried about national security than anything the prophet had to say, comes to its final and fullest meaning here, in the womb of Mary and in the heart of Joseph. A virgin conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not simply against all odds but in spite of its impossibility. Even the biologists must bow the head and bend the knee at the awe and wonder, the mystery of Immanuel. God is with us.
God is always with us. Without God, there is nothing. God doesn’t create by remote control, but by being present with His Word in, with, and under all things, calling them into being, holding them in existence. Were God to withdraw His presence from anything, that thing would cease to be, as though it never was. But Immanuel means something more than God being really present. It means God is present to save, to rescue, to redeem and raise up. That was the message to King Ahaz at the aqueduct: Stop what you’re doing and trust in the Lord. Stop trying to be the master of your own destiny and rely on the power of God to save you. Be still and know that God is God for you.
This baby in the womb of Mary is no stranger, no alien life form. He is the Word who made us, the Word who holds us and all things in existence, the Word who came to be with us in the most personal and intimate of ways, to embrace our humanity in His humanity, from cradle to grave, from the womb to the tomb – He is Immanuel, God with us. He is with us in baptismal water, in spoken Word, in eucharistic bread and wine. He is with us to free us, to forgive us, to raise and restore us.
And we, like Mary and Joseph, receive Him for who He is for us – Immanuel.
Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.