"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
In this passage from Isaiah God offers King Ahaz a sign of his presence. Ahaz who has been acting contrary to the law of love in his kingdom, quotes Torah hoping that he shows that he IS obedient to God. Then Isaiah proclaims the sign of God anyway. “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.” In the Hebrew the word used is the word for young woman. It is generally understood as the wife of Ahaz and the son born will be Hezekiah who will be a great reforming king.
But during the second century before Christ, a translation of Hebrew Scripture into Greek translated ‘young woman’ into the word for virgin. It was this version that Matthew used when he quoted Hebrew Scripture in his Gospel. In fact, all four gospel writers use this Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture—it was the Old Testament for the early Greek speaking Christians. It was only as the early church began to pull away from Judaism that the idea of a physical virgin became a theological necessity to Christianity.
The importance of this passage is NOT the virgin birth of Jesus. It is the place of sign in the lives of the faithful. What is a sign? What are we to make of it? How do signsI am not saying that the virgin birth did not take place—I am saying that perhaps we as church have put too much emphasis on the wrong syl-LA-ble.
King Ahaz did not want a sign from God because he didn’t want to have God messing with how he was governing Judah. But God gave him a sign that it would be his son who would lead Judah and that Ahaz wasn’t long for this world.
Matthew, looking back on the story in Isaiah saw the sign of God as the sign of Jesus’. It helped him recognize Jesus as the Messiah. That is what signs do. They help us to see the Divine in our rather mundane lives. Signs of God are all about us. And what is a symbol for some is totally missed by others. For the ancients who did not have to compete with modern light pollution saw signs in the skies. It made them take note of their lives in relationship to the universe, in relationship to that which is beyond us, in relationship to the Holy. Signs of God give us hope.
For Matthew, the sign was that a woman would give birth to a child who would be called “God with us.” The idea of god-with-us was common speak for those in the first century Roman Empire where Caesar was the incarnate of Jupiter. But Matthew knewMatthew used the idiom of his day to show that God, the Holy One of Israel was still with the dispersed people of Israel and Judah. He saw that it was the young child born to Mary that signed God’s presence to the world.
Matthew was being quite radical and subversive. He was claiming that this man, Jesus, whom the Romans had executed, was the one would whose memory would liberate the people. He was saying that Jesus was better than Caesar. This son of Israel would be the one who would bring the downfall of those who oppressed others. Jesus was a sign of newness, of hope, of holiness in the face of economic, spiritual and physical subjugation.
Signs of God’s presence have always been thus. They have always been marks of something that has given humanity the power to overcome the difficulties that face them. In my experience it has been the sacraments that have renewed me over and over—signs of God’s presence in my life. Whether it has been in the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Christ within me, the proclamation of God’s hope by a couple committing their lives to one another, the confirmation of one’s baptism before the community of faith, the embrace of ordination to proclaim Christ’s gospel, the confidence of forgiveness in absolution, or the recognition of God’s power in the oil of healing. God makes God’s presence known. There are so many signs of God-with-us.
I don’t worry about whether Mary was a Virgin or not. It isn’t that important. I do not need a supernatural conception to know that God uses the mundane and ordinary to sign for us that God is present to us at every moment. This does not diminish my love for Mary who has had to carry for the Church the feminine aspects of the Divine for centuries when the Church was dominated by a type of patriarchy that was not of God.
It is the men, women and children that I meet in the mall that are the Emmanuels of my life. It is the neighbor who doesn’t speak my language that provides me with a glimpse of the holy. It is the one that I want to call a ‘jerk’ that reminds me that God-with-us is not always the ones that make me comfortable. It is that Emmanuel that makes me stop and really see the sign of hope that God holds out to me and to the whole world.
All too often I just get tired of all the signs of God’s hope around me. Like Ahaz I would like ‘not to put God to the test’, I would like NOT to know that that particular person who hurts me is precisely the person who is the sign of divine presence. But in that sign is hope. God has incredible faith in us to go beyond all that separates us to bring about healing, goodness, and community.
The signs of God always proclaim that there is a way. The signs of God are always a way through darkness. The signs of God are always a way to know the presence of peace, embrace and wholeness.
God does not fix us. God doesn’t change us. God does not point the way for us to go. But there are always signs, always images of hope for us to follow. The Virgin did conceive and did bear a son and we still call him God with us. We still know his presence. We still call him Emmanuel. AMEN