The People of Israel had only come into existence by God's own call: from a motley gathering of enslaved ethnic groups they became a people by God’s choice; and as the People of God they could only prosper in existence by growing in their trust of the God Who had called them into being. As the prophet Isaiah would tell them:
Thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies. (30:15)
Ahaz, king of Judah the homeland of God’s Chosen People, was, however, a selfish and unreliable individual and, consequently, a faithless, indeed disastrously faithless king. He sacrificed to the gods of the Canaanites and, when pressed by enemies, would not trust in the Lord God of Israel as Isaiah, God’s prophet, urged him to do, but rather turned to the current super-power, the Assyrians, for more immediate and sensible help.
In the Old Testament, and in the Mediterranean world of that time, the King of a country was regarded as son of the country’s God: whoever the god of a nation might be, the king was regarded as his son and his chosen instrument to bless, guide, and protect the nation. This was also the common understanding of the relationship between Yahweh the one true God, and the reigning king of Judah and of God’s Chosen People. However, the faith of Israel would not tolerate any suggestion of such a son arising from the copulation of gods, or from any carnal intercourse of a god with the queen mother; for Israel, only a relationship as ‘adopted’ son of God was admissible for the proclamation and confirmation of a new sovereign on the occasion of his coronation. Thus the words of Yahweh in Psalm 2 verse 7:
You are My son, today I have begotten you.
You can imagine then the disgust Isaiah felt for this present king Ahaz who -- supposedly a ‘son of God’ for Judah, an instrument of God for the blessing of His Chosen People -- was, in reality, faithless before the God of Judah and indifferent to the well-being of his people, being entirely devoted to his own self-interest. Therefore Isaiah prophesied in the name of the Lord as you heard:
Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
The Great King who was to come, the Messiah, Emmanuel, would be, quite literally, GOD-WITH-US. Ahaz, had neither the faith, nor consequently, the trust, to live in difficult times as God's instrument of blessing for His People. The King to come however – Emmanuel -- would be God's very presence, not simply on the basis of human faith and fidelity, but on the fact of His divine origin and dignity: truly, the only Son of the only God; no mere instrument of blessing, but God’s very Blessing Himself.
He would be no descendent of Ahaz the unworthy, because His mother would be a Virgin. She would, indeed, be totally unlike Ahaz who was most miserably and cynically failing his people through distrust of God, for she would have such full and perfect trust in the Lord, that Elizabeth -- under the impulse of the Spirit of God -- would declare such faith and trust to be Mary the Virgin’s supreme characteristic:
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled. (Luke. 1:45)
Let us now, therefore, look at both Ahaz and Our Lady and learn what they, in their very different ways, teach us about the meaning of Emmanuel, God-with-us; for God is with us not only as Saviour for all mankind, not only with us as Head of the Body which is His Church, but also with each and every one of us who believe, for the right-living and fulfilment of our earthly lives and the attainment of our ultimate reward in heaven.
Despite the Lord's promise of divine blessing and help made through Isaiah the prophet, Ahaz perversely put his trust in the military might of Assyria, opting for a quick-fix that would provide personal advantage and security at the cost of crushing taxes for the people as a whole. Mary, for her part, would ignore her own precarious personal standing with her neighbours and look to the Lord alone, putting her total confidence and trust in His word given her by the angel Gabriel.
Ahaz feared for his throne and his life; Mary consecrated her humility and her virginity to the Lord, despite thereby -- according to the Law – putting her life at risk. Ahaz’ faithless gamble turned out predictably -- or should we say prophetically -- to be disastrous both for himself and his people. Mary’s total trust that God would protect her was vindicated, and she has been proclaimed blessed above all women on earth ever since.
Therefore God-is-with-us means that He is always with us to lead us into, and protect us along, the right way if – setting aside both our human fears and our personal pride -- we will, with confidence and trust, accept His guidance. God-is-with-us to enlighten, watch over, and help us, in all our needs; but such grace and power can only flow into us through our faith and trust in Him and our obedience to His Spirit.
Finally, we can say the God-is-with-us means precisely what it says: He wills to be with us as our constant companion: always sharing, and involving Himself with us and for us, in every aspect of our experience of life. In all situations, He wills to be at our side -- whatever we may have made of ourselves thus far -- if only we will turn to Him, humbly open ourselves up to Him, and trust Him. As the negro spiritual puts it most beautifully: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus”.
He is there, moreover, not only for our guidance, comfort, and strength throughout our earthly pilgrimage, but also to lead us to the Father, our eternal destiny: that we might to learn to love Him as Jesus loved Him Who was, indeed, the supreme love of Jesus’ being-human on earth. To that end we have the Scriptures of Mother Church where the very words and actions of Jesus respond to and fulfil the preparations and anticipations of both the Law and the Prophets, and inspire the writings of those disciples who most closely shared His public life and deeply understood the meaning and purpose of His sufferings and death on the cross.
However, He is with us supremely in and through the Gift of His Holy Spirit to Mother Church, and through her sacraments -- above all of Baptism and the Eucharist -- to each and every loving disciple or humble searcher. In this aspect we do not so much imitate Jesus, His words, or His deeds, but rather He draws us -- often enough unknown to our conscious awareness -- by the gift and the power of His Spirit; for it is the work of His Spirit to form us in Jesus for the Father. In that work we are largely being carried along, so to speak; spending all our effort to remain close, and indeed, to get ever closer, to Jesus through intimacy with the Scriptures and through prayer and the sacraments. Then, looking most hopefully for the Spirit to guide us, we try to be attentive and understanding, responsive and obedient, to Him in all things. In that work there is so much to rejoice in and be thankful for, but also, so little, so very, very, little to boast of, since God’s prolific goodness is also most humbling.
Soon we will be able to celebrate with true joy and gratitude the birth of Emmanuel -- Jesus Christ, the Co-eternal Son of God the Eternal Father, become Son of Man. It is eminently fitting, therefore, that today we celebrate her from whom the Son of God took flesh in order to become the Lord and Saviour of mankind. Moreover, it is truly fitting that today, we celebrate Mary precisely as the one who most perfectly surrendered herself in trust and faith to the promise made her by the Lord, since it is in this regard, supremely, that she is our model as well as our Mother; for St. Paul tells us that faith and trust in God's word is the very essence of the Christian life for all in Mother Church, when -- as you heard in our second reading – he declares:
Through (Jesus Christ our Lord) I received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of His name, among all the Gentiles.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, that we may have the grace both to live faithfully and to die peacefully trusting in the goodness of God Who, in His great compassion, has already gifted us with faith to believe in His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, and has, thereby and above all, endowed us with His Holy Spirit, to form us in the likeness of our Our Lord and Saviour and lead us to that heavenly home which is already prepared and waiting for all who will prove themselves His own true disciples, and, in Him, children able to eternal glory to their heavenly Father and rejoice the heart of You, the Mother of all believers.