When the angel Gabriel met Joseph, a sigh of relief wasn’t the meeting’s only outcome. Joseph had discovered not only the origin of his betrothed wife Mary’s baby, but also the significance of the One to come. The angel instructed Joseph to name the baby Jesus because the name, meaning “the Lord saves,” was fitting: this son would save his people from their sins. Matthew adds another note: the appearance of this child was also going to be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about one called Immanuel, because Mary’s son was going to be “God with us.”
It’s easy for us to be caught up at Christmas. The crowds and the rush seem to be able to bring out the worst in us. Our patience is short. We snap at others easily. We’re in such a hurry to get things done that we can step on people’s toes along our way. The fact that we spend at least a couple of days in close quarters with family members with whom we don’t always see eye to eye can also present its challenges.
Of course, in addition to these rather inglorious moments, there’s also the fact that Christmas brings out the sadness and losses of our lives in more noticeable ways. For some this season really is “the most wonderful time of the year.” For others it’s a time to grit the teeth and soldier through until January, putting a cap on the tears that threaten to surface all December.
The two “names” of Jesus in Matthew 1 are great pointers of how we might better approach the season, and of what the incarnation means in practical terms for us.
First, Jesus: “the Lord saves.” How badly we need to hear the news that no matter what we have done, what regrets and wrongs lie in our past, Jesus saves and forgives. When we turn to Jesus to find our Saviour, nothing we’ve done will lead God to say, “Actually, I didn’t mean you!” Those who cling to him in faith will not be turned away.
This truth of “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” leads to a certain imperative that Jesus never failed to point out: as those who have been forgiven so much, we must forgive the sins and wrongs of others toward us. It is so easy to allow the past to control us, to hold onto old hurts and offenses and regrets, especially while we share a long Christmas afternoon in a living room together. But having Jesus as our Saviour means being released from the chains of those pasts. It means that we can approach Christmas with hearts full of gracious charity, hearts that are never finally shut to those around us.
Second, “Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’”: God is not only surprisingly present with us despite our sin, he is also generously with us in the hurts of life. The person who has dealt with great loss, of a deceased family member or friend, is reassured, “God is with you.” The person who is sorting out a hard decision in a period of choice is reassured, “God is with you.” The woman who has lost a job, the man who requires great courage, the parent who worries for a wayward child: all meet, in the coming of Jesus, the same promise: God is with us. The best advice we might be able to hear in any and all such circumstances is the directive, whatever we’re facing, to tell Jesus about it. He understands and is compassionate and wise and always true.
The promise of “God with us,” like the promise of “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” also leads to an imperative: as God’s people, who have known God to be with us, we must also be ready to go wherever we see people alone or in pain, to be with them. We cannot and should not try to take the place of God himself, of course. We are no one’s Saviour, and can only distract from the real Saviour if we try to be. But if we keep our eyes open this Christmas season, we may find ourselves with the privilege of being God’s ministering angels somewhere along the way.