In this Fourth Week of Advent, we are very close to Christmas and to the Birth of the Baby. The Church tries to show us in this time that, on the one hand, Jesus is in continuity with God’s plan in the Old Testament and brings those plans to completion while, on the other hand, Jesus breaks out of all attempts to categorize Him.
St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, trying to describe Christ Jesus: “For [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9–10). So, while Jesus is the son of David in continuity with the old promises, He is also the Son of God in power through His Resurrection.
In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, we witness the tension not only between the prophet and the king but also within our own experience. There is a confrontation between two contrasting worlds, between two opposing systems of psychological security — that of this world and that of the spiritual realm. The prophet has given an assurance that faith will save, even in a seemingly worldly political crisis. The king, however, like us so often, is reluctant to submit his will to the claims of faith. This is a great temptation in each one of us: to act with foolish autonomy.
In this reading, the prophet announces a sign: A young woman will give birth to a child whose name is Immanuel, “God with us.” Everything changes when God is with us. You can feel this in a small way if you have an opportunity to savor beautiful scenery or an environment that makes a special impact on you.
The Birth of the Baby is a sign of salvation and deliverance, which will come not through political alliance, but rather through reliance on the intervention of God, Who keeps His promises. Isaiah was addressing a situation in which people were tempted to form alliances with foreign powers, but he emphasized that it is reliance on God that will be the saving grace. And the same is true for us today: It is grace, not worldly practicality, that saves us.
As we edge closer to the celebration of the coming of Jesus, the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1:1–7) focuses on the Davidic descent of Jesus. Paul identifies himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.” This is not something that he has chosen himself; rather, he was chosen by God. He affirms that the Gospel was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,” underlining the fact that God has kept and will keep His promises. This connects with the theme of the First Sunday of Advent: the continuity between Christ and those who had gone before Him, and the way He brings to fulfillment the promises of old.
The Apostle makes two assertions about Jesus Christ: that He “was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” We must maintain the balance between those two aspects of Christ: the human and the divine, the fleshly and the spiritual, the Son of Mary and the Son of God. To emphasize one at the expense of the other means that we are not true to the reality of the Messiah. It is through Jesus Christ and His coworkers, among them Paul, that the “obedience of faith” is brought to all believers. This truth in faith is meant for all, not just the apostles and other leaders: We all receive our faith as a calling from God.
In Matthew (1:18– 24), you’ll notice that the evangelist is concerned with the conception and the naming of Jesus. These details serve to identify who Jesus is and what He does. The conception is described from the perspective of Joseph, this righteous man who repeatedly obeys the counsel of God’s messenger. It becomes clear to Joseph that this conception is the work of God; Jesus is the product of a new and startling divine initiative. He acts distinctively as the Agent of the Divine Spirit, and He manifestly illustrates the unique power of God. The virginal conception signals the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes and ushers in a totally new age. It is long expected and hoped for, and yet it comes in a fashion so unusual that it could not possibly have been anticipated.
Christ’s naming also calls attention to His place in history. The angel directs Joseph to call the child by the name “Jesus,” followed by an explanation, “For He will save His people from their sins.” This alerts us to the peculiar role this Infant will play, which will unfold in His ministry and particularly in His Death and Resurrection. He is the Messiah, Who heals divisions, Who reconciles all of us to God and to one another: This Baby will do what only God can do. And so, wherever the name of Jesus appears, there is the absolute assurance of God’s forgiveness.
The text of today’s Gospel gives Jesus another name: Emmanuel, “God with us.” Wherever Jesus is, God is there, present with His people. This idea comes through at the beginning and the end of Matthew’s Gospel (the Great Commission), but also midway through, when Jesus reminds His disciples: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). Jesus is not a figure confined to the past. He is the presence of God; He is accompanying His Church in Her mission; He energizes His Church in Her teaching; He pioneers Her efforts to make disciples of all nations.
How does this Gospel relate to you and me? Joseph received a specific message in the Gospel that began with the greeting “Do not fear.” Indeed, this is the most frequently repeated command in the whole Bible: “Do not be afraid.” As we draw ever closer to Christmas, that exhortation could be a significant aspect of our prayer and preparation.
Now, this does not mean that parents should not be concerned about where their teenage children are hanging out, nor does it mean that children should not be afraid if their parents are cruel or otherwise dysfunctional. At times we have very good reasons to fear immediate danger or distress.
But St. John reminds us that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). And so the question is, “How do we reach perfect love?” This is where the Christmas message enters. The essence of the Christmas story is that God is with us in a particular and unique way. He is with us to save us; this is what the name “Jesus” means.
And so there is liberation — from sin, of course, but also from the destructive implications and results of sin, freedom from the fear that keeps us from loving God with our whole hearts, minds, and souls and from loving one another. The antidote to our fears is the knowledge and the confidence that “God is with us.” Our response to this Christmas gift must surely be one of trust, letting the Lord gradually remove the fears that get in the way of perfect love.
I believe that all too many Christians may be afraid of God — not the holy fear that is a gift of the Spirit, but a cowering fear that paralyzes them. In their experience, God seems to be so distant, so majestic, so uncaring. If this is our image of God, then we need to look into the Crib or at the Cross. This is our God: in swaddling clothes or nailed to a tree.
Further, all too many Christians are afraid of themselves: reluctant to trust their own joy, afraid to be happy. They think that if they are too happy, something bad will happen to them. But remember the promise of Jesus: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
Many Christians are also afraid to risk, like the fearful servant in the Gospel parable who was afraid to invest his master’s capital (Matt. 25:14–30). He kept the money in a safe place and ventured nothing, only to hear his master say, “You wicked and lazy servant.” We are called, rather, to go forth in confidence, spreading the light and grace of Christ even when it feels as if it might be costly.
Christmas is not an end to all fear, but it should be the beginning of a fresh love for a God, Who experienced in His flesh all that we experience; a fresh love for ourselves, for what God has achieved in and through us; a fresh love for our sisters and brothers, for each image of God that we touch each day, with a word or a telephone call or a decision or a prayer.
Before the divine Baby is born, let us meditate on this love and try to identify where it can cast out our fear.
This article is adapted from a meditation in Advent Reflections: Meditations for a Holy Advent. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.