Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
Signs, symbols, oracles, portents: man has since time immemorial sought assurance from God of His providential will. King Ahaz in the First Reading is going against the grain in refusing to ask “for a sign from the Lord”, especially since the Lord Himself directed Ahaz to do so. Yet in spite of the stubbornness of Ahaz, the Lord gives him a stunning sign: “that the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
This sign has three parts. The first is that “the virgin shall conceive”. This seems to be a paradox that goes against the very laws of nature. Yet God, who is the Author of all creation—both natural and supernatural—can work within His creation as He wills. What seems to us to be an act against the natural order can be an instance of God working supernaturally within the natural order. This particular act stresses that God is the Author of all life.
The sign’s second part is that the virgin shall “bear a son”, and the third that the virgin “shall name him Emmanuel”. These latter two parts reveal more to us about the particular life that God has created. God’s creation is the son of the virgin, and so he is human. As her son, he is named by the virgin. But the name she gives him reveals something extraordinary about this life, beyond the extraordinary means of his creation.
His name is Emmanuel, a Hebrew word which means “God with us”. This phrase encompasses a broad range of possible meanings. At its lower end, the phrase could mean simply that this human being named “Emmanuel” reminds us, or teaches us, of God’s presence in our collective midst. However, at the opposite end of this range of meanings is the teaching of the Gospel and Christ’s Church.
The person of Jesus of Nazareth, while truly the son of Mary—and so truly human—is also the son of God: “One in Being” with God the Father, as we profess. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Yet the Incarnation is but the prelude to the divine work that God will accomplish in Jesus at the end of His human life.
With that as a backdrop, we can reflect upon the Gospel Reading setting the stage for the Nativity. The Reading’s focus is Saint Joseph and his vocation as the foster-father of Jesus. Consider Joseph’s vocation in light of the two names by which his foster-child is described here: Jesus and Emmanuel.
The name “Jesus” means “God saves”, while “Emmanuel” means “God with us”. Taken together, they dispel two contrary beliefs: that God will save us only at a distance; and that God comes into our midst only to condemn us. Instead, these two names together confirm that God is with us in order to save us.
In Joseph’s dream, the angel of the Lord demands two things from Joseph. The first is not to “be afraid to take Mary… into [his] home”. The second is to “name [Mary’s son] Jesus”. Both commands imply acceptance. Generally, they imply acceptance of God’s providential Will. Specifically, they imply acceptance of Mary and Jesus as Joseph’s own. In spite of the apparent shame caused by Mary—because of her seeming infidelity—God calls Joseph to protect Mary as her husband, and to stand with her in accepting with patience the unfolding of God’s Providence.
In spite of Mary’s apparent betrayal of her betrothal to Joseph, God asks Joseph to name Mary’s son. This act itself, independent of the name Joseph would give the child, is significant. This act had legal significance within the culture of Joseph. By this act, Joseph would have been claiming the child as his own. In making this claim, Joseph undoubtedly would have invited shame upon himself, as many would have seen this act as an admission that he had fathered a child outside of a fully ratified marriage.
Part of the irony of this passage, then, is that Mary and Joseph, by their submission to God’s providential Will, foreshadow the life of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are scorned and cast aside as sinners precisely because of their faithfulness to what God wants to accomplish through Christ. We ought to expect this in our lives as disciples, as well.