Underneath the multiple layers of cultural memory associated with the Christmas season lies a striking theological claim. The author of the gospel of Matthew writes it this way: "They shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'" (1:23). What does this claim mean today?
Many fall into biblical naïveté or biblicism, which usually takes as its basic form "the Bible says it; I believe it; case closed." But biblicism begs a more fundamental question: why believe the Bible is more true than any other book claiming to speak for God? How can believers answer the basic question of why the Bible is worth believing? How do Christians avoid falling into a kind of triumphalism toward believers of other traditions, or nonbelievers?
Of particular concern is what this and other claims about Jesus mean for the way Christians understand our relationship to Jews. Matthew's gospel is known among scholars as the most Jewish of the four gospels, constantly making reference to this or that prophecy from the Old Testament, especially (as in this case) the book of Isaiah. In light of the history of Christian-Jewish relations, this point is especially urgent. Matthew and the other New Testament authors had a chip on their shoulder toward the Jewish community, having felt the sting of expulsion from the synagogues due to their constant preaching about this itinerant rabbi. That sting, that animosity toward an extended family that had experienced a rupture, was embedded in the gospels themselves, and as a result it was embedded in Christian attitudes toward Jews over the centuries.
We must remember that Matthew and the other evangelists were writing stories, and that of the four gospels, only two of them (Matthew and Luke) have narratives about Jesus' birth. The others don't even address his early life. Writing any story means making choices about how to deliver emotional impact; the gospels are very much literary creations of the respective authors, drawing from real events and telling them in emotionally charged ways. Matthew wanted to draw from the sacred literature of the Jews because he wanted to persuade his fellow Jews that something absolutely remarkable had happened. Here is where we find the meeting point of clever artistry and what is rightly called revelation: Matthew told a good story, but it was inspired by the fact that he was moved by a faith, a conviction, that Jesus was God.
This conviction doesn't come easily, either for the writer of a story or for one who reads the story today. To put it most starkly, imagine writing a story about God. Now imagine persuading people to give their lives for it. ("The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," wrote Tertullian in the late 2nd century.) Now imagine that people keep giving their lives for it two thousand years later. What drives such conviction, age after age? Is it the willingness of people to be deceived, or is it rather their willingness to discern something true that is really worth giving their lives for?
Christians, like all people everywhere of every time and place, fall into the trap of tribalism and triumphalism when they gain political power. (Lord Acton: "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.") Ours is an age when Christianity has lost great power; "Christendom" is a thing of the past. Many Christians want that power back and want to use the gospel as a rationale for reclaiming it.
What is worth remembering, however, is that the stories of "God with us" were decidedly anti-power. Matthew and Luke take great pains to describe the new "king" in strikingly non-regal terms: born in a backwater town to peasants and driven into refugee status. In spite of their animosity toward the people who had alienated them, the evangelists nevertheless embed their narratives within Jewish history and, in the end, recognize their complete dependence on the Jews, even as they remain compelled by the unique story of Jesus.
What does all this mean for how Christians today understand "God with us"? First, it means understanding our absolute dependence upon Jewish history and, in a related sense, on the perseverance of the Jewish community of faith who gives living witness to that history. Second, it means discerning what Matthew and the other evangelists were pointing to as "God with us."
It means basing a faith not naively on the stories themselves, but on the person of Christ who gave rise to the stories.
To put it more simply, it means a lifelong commitment to learning prayer as the way to get to know God personally.
I suggest that a sound-byte takeaway for this exhortation is this: it takes at least as much effort to learn prayer—to learn to really listen to God—as it takes to learn how to love.
The evangelists, reflecting the awe experienced by the earliest followers of Jesus, looked beyond themselves, their small worlds, their communities, their history, toward God, reaching for language to communicate the depth of meaning they found Jesus revealing in his teaching, his way of living, his martyrdom, and his miraculous coming-back-to-life.
I read their efforts as a way of screaming down the centuries to us: "Listen to him! Understand this story and those who have died because of it! Cling tenaciously to his promise of life! See for yourself! Do you understand? God is with us!"
That is the whole, incredible, never-ending, and ever-challenging story of Emmanuel.