homily – December 23

Matthew 1:18-24

In our first reading and in our gospel we have these words, ‘look, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel, God is with us.’

When Isaiah wrote these words he was not referring to Jesus. He was trying to encourage a frightened king named Ahaz. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had entered into an alliance against the southern kingdom of Judah. Together they lay siege to the city of Jerusalem and things were not going well for Ahaz. Isaiah was trying to encourage the king to trust in God. He gives him this famous sign, a sign the king distrusted. ‘A young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel’ The young woman was in fact Ahaz’s wife and her yet born baby would be sign that the Davidic line of kings would continue, would survive this attack from the north. The yet born baby would be a sign that God is with his people, a proof God did not abandon His people.

Centuries later when Matthew wrote his gospel he was writing for a Jewish Christian community, a community seen as apostates, traitors to the ancient faith of Israel. Their decision to follow Christ split families, caused them to be driven out of their synagogues, made them outcasts. Matthew wrote his gospel to convince his community that by accepting Jesus as Messiah they were being faithful to their Jewish heritage. In Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus and Joseph’s dream and his willingness to take the pregnant Mary as his wife he quotes Isaiah famous lines about the young pregnant woman having a baby to be named Emmanuel – God with us.

Matthew’s use of these words is far removed from what Isaiah originally intended. – Isaiah was thinking only of the immediate political situation and of his certainty that God would shortly intervene on the side of King Ahaz. But the message was true for the people of Isaiah’s time and the people of Matthew’s time. God is with us. Mathew’s community needed that assurance. It was under great pressure to return to their Jewish faith – they were a persecuted people. Matthew described the very condition of their lives when he wrote, ‘you will be handed over to the authorities, brought before judges,’ driven out by their own families. These good people needed to hear the uplifting news, “God is with us”. God is with us in Jesus, the Christ, Jesus descended from David according to the flesh.

The Christmas season is a very exciting, joyful time for many people. It really is a great time. But some people find it difficult to catch the spirit of the time. They are burdened with many troubles. People who have or had a death in the family at this time of the year find it hard to be merry and bright. The words “merry Christmas” stick in their throats. For families dealing with serious illness, unemployment, separation, this is not the best time of the year. For persons struggling with the darkness of depression, this is not the best time of the year. That’s why the words of Isaiah and Matthew are so important for such people to hear – God is with us. God is with us in our times of grief and sorrow, God is with us even when we have no idea of what to do or how to cope with the pressures of our lives. God is with us in our pain and hurt no matter what their source – God is with us even if we are more convinced of His absence than His presence. God is with us.

We can hope that in its wisdom the Church chose these readings just for such people.

As we continue to celebrate this Mass we can pray for ourselves and for all others who, because of the stressful circumstances of their lives, need to hear the consoling and truth filled words of today’s scripture: God is with us.