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God with Us

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

“‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” (Matthew 1:23 NIV)

From our modern perspective, our familiarity with the Christmas story and the thousands of years of intervening history, it’s hard to imagine what Mary was thinking and feeling on the night she gave birth to the Son of God. Yet we instinctively want to—many songs remind us every December.

It seems we all agree that it couldn’t have been easy on her. Besides the discomfort of being pregnant and giving birth—no doubt rather exacerbated by having traveled for days—she was also suffering the social shame of appearing to have gone against God’s commands, though in fact she had found great favor with Him. It isn’t hard for us to feel her outrage at being misunderstood, her helplessness in knowing that her situation was impossible to explain, and possibly her resentment, that she should have such a hard time when she was supposedly so blessed.

Yet it also seems that Mary looked beyond her circumstantial discomfort to the miracle that was really taking place. Luke 2:19 says of the birth, the visit of the shepherds, and their story of the angels, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (NIV). I think that Mary, holding tiny, helpless baby Jesus, did comprehend a small part of the monumental moment. After all, she was the only one who really knew (rather than just believing) that her pregnancy was a miracle, and I doubt it’s something she’d forget easily.

I’m guessing Mary had bad days later—when it was hard to get a meal on the table and all the children were crying and she felt very much like the human mother she was—and on those days, maybe it was hard for her to remember the wonder of Jesus’s birth. Then, too, there might have been bad days that were made easier when she would stop and remember how amazing that night had been. She was the very first human who experienced God’s amazing plan: to dwell among men.

“God with us” is hard to understand. Generations of theologians in the early Church debated exactly how human and how divine Jesus had been (final answer: fully both). It’s the literal “God was with us in person” and the more figurative “God is no longer keeping himself at a distance from us.” No more temple, no more sacrifices of atonement—all that taken care of by Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection. It’s the great mystery of our faith, how God could put himself into a human body and how God wants to dwell in us now.

In the midst of “the holidays,” we can lose that mystery in the familiarity of the scene and the story. Take a moment this year to ponder what it must have been like to hold baby Jesus. And, yes, take advantage of the perspective we have now: ponder the magnitude of the moment in light of what came after.

How many kings stepped down from their thrones? How many lords have abandoned their homes? How many greats have become the least for me? How many gods have poured out their hearts To romance a world that is torn all apart? How many fathers gave up their sons for me? Only One did that for me.
(Downhere, “How Many Kings?”)
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