At Christmas I feel an ache and a wistfulness that I can hardly put into words. Others must feel it too, for amidst the cheerful choruses of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls,” we hear the haunting strains of songs like “Mary Did You Know,” reminding us that what our hearts most need at Christmas will not be bought in stores or found wrapped under the tree.
I’ve been trying to unpack this longing, trying to figure out what is behind it. What do I really need at Christmas? I read these words from Matthew and my heart is stirred though I’m not sure why.
Matthew 1:23, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel (which means, God with us).
God with us.
The tears fall as the realization hits me. God is with us. God is with me.
That’s what I need to know. That’s what my heart is longing to experience. That’s the magnificent promise of Christmas. That God is with me.
Lately I’ve been struggling with post-polio syndrome, wondering what the future holds. How much longer will I be able to walk? Or write? Or even feed myself? Those questions have gripped me, and I have felt fear closing in. What will I do when my body fails?
As I reread the familiar passage, which refers to the prophecy of Isaiah centuries before Christ, I know this is God’s word for me. Emmanuel, God with us, is the answer to my fears.
God will be with me no matter what comes. I need not face anything without his strength. Or his power. Or his presence. As Psalm 23 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” I don’t need to fear the future because God will be with me.
God with us does indeed drive out fear. As Isaiah 41:10 says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” God with us means God will strengthen us. God with us means God will help us. God with us means he will uphold us through every trial. And because nothing is impossible with God, God with us means that nothing will be impossible for us.
God with us also ensures we are never alone. When we experience God with us, we can go from feeling lonely and abandoned to feeling comforted and cared for even when our home is empty. We can talk to God like a friend who will always be with us. We can claim the words God spoke to Joshua when he said, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.” God will never leave us.
Comforting as these assurances are, God with us can mean something even deeper than his help. Even greater than the incredible things that God does FOR us because he is with us, are the incredible things God does IN us when he is with us. Times of refreshing come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:20). In his presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). When we behold his glory, there is a sense of wonder and worship that transcends our needs. We turn aside and take off our sandals, for we are standing on holy ground. And it is this experience of God’s glory that changes us deeply, for in worshiping him we find our deepest longings met.
In my life, I have had a few glimpses of God’s glory. Those moments, though rare, have touched me more deeply than anything I have ever experienced. I cannot adequately put them into words, but I have experienced almost an unbounded euphoria. A feeling that nothing else mattered but God. A joy that transcended my circumstances. A sense of almost bursting with happiness. A breathtaking awe and vision of his holiness that completely enveloped me.
After those encounters with the Lord, when his glorious presence overshadowed everything, I was profoundly different. Providentially, these experiences were connected to the most desperate times of my life. Sobbing uncontrollably, afraid of what the future might hold. Feeling lost and dejected, weeks after my son’s death. Journaling alone, months after my first husband left. Lying prostrate on the floor, praying for a troubled child. While those circumstances were agonizing, the joy I experienced in Christ eclipsed everything else. It was a foretaste of glory. And the memory of it has never left me.
So what can God with us mean to us? It certainly means God helps us. It means we need not fear. It means we will never be alone and we will never be left to our own resources. Our God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and nothing is too hard for him.
But God with us also means that God’s majesty and glory are with us. It means that the God of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth who spoke the world into being, is with us. We only need eyes to see him. And when we do, our response will be inexplicable delight and unending worship.
As I hear the name Emmanuel this season, my heart is full. The worship songs, “God with us” and Michael Card’s, “Immanuel” keep ringing through my head as do many of the Christmas hymns. I joyfully join believers throughout the ages in singing:
“O come to us, abide in us, our Lord Emmanuel.