Emmanuel delivers God's Christmas presence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 23, 2002

This is the time of year when almost everything we see and hear has to do with Christmas presents. We're making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out what's nifty and nice.

But in the spirit of the occasion, what kind of gift do we suppose God might give?

I think the answer can be found among those wonderful old Christmas carols we so enjoy. In particular, the answer is to be found in one of the names for Jesus we associate with this season – a name that also speaks of the best gift any of us can give to each other, anytime.

Now obviously, I am writing as one who takes the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ very seriously – that, as the saying goes, "Jesus is the reason for the season." Not all of you will agree with everything I'm going to say, but I hope you will at least allow me to share candidly with you what is, for me, the single most important thing in life.

So, which name for the Christchild do I mean?

In that all-time favorite, Silent Night, there appear the names: Child, Holy Infant, Christ, the Savior, Son of God, Jesus, and Lord. But I'm not thinking of any of these.

Other carols include such names as Prince of Peace, Sun of Righteousness, Holy Child of Bethlehem, Messiah, the great Desire of nations, the everlasting Light, the wondrous Gift, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, and Key of David. But though highly evocative of promise and hope, none of these is the name I'm thinking of, either.

Rather, we find the name I'm looking for in the carols O Little Town of Bethlehem and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, and in the Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The name is Emmanuel.

It is especially in the second verse of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing that we get a hint of this name's profound significance: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th' incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!"

The reference is to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1, where the name appears in a quotation from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Following immediately after the account of an angel announcing to Joseph that his soon-to-be wife Mary was bearing a child from the Holy Spirit, the quotation reads: "'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us.'"

God with us? – in the form of an infant born in a barn? – who, upon attaining manhood, humbly identifies Himself with the poor and marginalized of society?– who accepts an unjustly imposed criminal's death on a cross? – and whom His heavenly Father raises up in a powerful affirmation of Emmanuel's exalted identity as Lord? This sacred mystery lies at the heart of Christian thinking and Christian living.

Emmanuel is God's presence among us in flesh and blood. Emmanuel is God's Christmas presence. God's gift to us is HIMSELF!

I was discussing the implications of this name recently with Cochrane coffee companion Faith Brace, Lutheran minister and longtime inner-city pastor on the streets of Edmonton.

"Emmanuel is the gift of Presence," she said. "He understood suffering and was willing to participate in it."

But, I asked, what does this mean for us today, 2000 years later?

Faith, who has spent a great deal of her time assisting the marginalized in a women's shelter, responded: "The only thing we have that we can share with them is OUR presence."

Yes, I thought to myself, Emmanuel is all about the gift of loving presence – God's love for us, and our love for each other. For if Jesus is Emmanuel to us, then in His Spirit we are called to be Emmanuels to each other. As another scripture declares: "as He is, so are we in this world."

Then it occurred to me: there is another Christmas carol that says the same thing as "Emmanuel," but in different words.

O Come, All Ye Faithful concludes with this description of the Christchild:

"Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing."

And just what is that word? Nothing less than "I love you."

So have a Merry Christmas – and share the presence!

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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