A promise that ‘God is with us’

By Patricia Kasten | December 18, 2013

We’ve been singing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” throughout Advent. Now, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear from Isaiah and Matthew about Emmanuel.

For us, the name “Emmanuel” is both a call for faith and a promise.

“Emmanuel” in Hebrew means “God-with-us” or “God is with us.” In religious tradition — both Christian and Jewish — “God-with-us” is first of all a promise. The name first appears with the prophet Isaiah, in Sunday’s first reading.

Isaiah’s prophecy came just before a war against the kingdom of Judah waged by the kings of northern Israel (Ephraim) and Aram-Damascus (Syria) in 734 B.C. They attacked because Judah’s king, Ahaz, refused to join them against Assyria. Isaiah warned Ahaz and reminded the king that his only alliance should be with God.

This is where our reading comes in: Isaiah is telling Ahaz to trust God: “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.”

Jewish tradition holds that this passage speaks directly to this specific war. In this view, the son who was to be born is understood to be Ahaz’ yet-unborn son, Hezekiah.

The rest of the prophecy, which we don’t hear, promises that the threat from Aram and Ephraim would fail by the time the promised child reached the age of “knowing good from evil.”

Isaiah was right. The Assyrians destroyed Aram and Ephraim within a few years. However, Ahaz had ended up as a vassal — almost a servant — of the Assyrian king. When Hezekiah became king, he revolted against Assyria in 705 A.D. Assyria put Jerusalem under siege, but a plague destroyed most of the Assyrian army. This happened after Hezekiah had prayed to God, publicly placing his trust in God.

For Christians, Isaiah’s prophecy is interpreted as foreshadowing events farther into the future than 700 A.D. We hear Isaiah’s words as God’s promise to David of a savior being born through his royal line — an eternal ruler of Israel.

When we turn to the Gospel reading today, which also addresses Isaiah’s prophecy, we should remember how Matthew’s audience — Jewish-Christians living after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. — might have interpreted this promised “Emmanuel.”

They knew about Ahaz and how Jerusalem had been saved under Hezekiah. However, in their time, the temple, the place where God dwelt, was gone. What was left? Now who would show them how to live with God, how to trust God?

The answer of course was Emmanuel. The “child who will be born” had indeed been born and had grown up trusting God and revealing God’s kingdom. And God had raised him from the dead.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we also see Joseph. He provides us with a contrast to Ahaz who didn’t listen to God’s messenger and trusted only in human advisors. While Ahaz doubted the promise of God, Joseph — a son of David — did not.

And what did that trust earn Joseph? God’s presence on earth, living with him. Emmanuel, the eternal and living promise of God, came into Joseph’s home.

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers.”

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