22 Dec 2013
“Then [Isaiah] said, ‘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 young woman shall be with child and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’” (Isa 7:13-14) In the name …
Isaiah, and for the most part all of the Jewish prophets, had a very difficult relationship with the rulers of ancient Israel and Judah. And it’s not a fair comparison at all because the guy is nuts, but we can imagine why by thinking about the current ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. He’s the third dictator from the same family of that unfortunate, impoverished country. He just ordered the execution of his father’s brother, and according to the state media, the guy’s wife approved of the execution for the good of the state. Kim Jong Un’s people are starving, but he’s much more comfortable main-taining a massive army and building expensive nuclear weapons so that he can remain in power. And the reason I bring up the crazy example of crazy Kim Jong Un just a few days before Christmas is that the average citizen of almost any country from almost any point in the history of civilization has had to pray for decent, fair and compassionate leadership, but far too often they end up disappointed.
In Isaiah’s case, it was King Ahaz of Judah, a not very noble nobleman also of an unfortunate, impoverished nation. He sold the nation of Judah to the Assyrians for protection so that he wouldn’t lose his crown. In repayment, Ahaz imported the Assyrian gods into the country of the Jews, and even practiced the abomination of child-sacrifice, which is even worse than executing your own uncle. This is why the prophet says rather abruptly to the king: “‘Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God!?’” (Isa 7:13) It’s not “our God.” Isaiah says quite purposefully: “my God.” Ahaz, the king of God’s people, is no longer even recognized as a follower of that same God. And though King Ahaz will not ask, probably because he does not want to ask, Isaiah reveals the coming of Immanuel, the anti-king king.
Immanuel, as we read earlier in Advent, will not judge by appearance, nor by hearsay shall he decide. He “shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.” (Isa. 11: 4a) His reign will be one marked by justice, says Isaiah. Now justice is not an expectation that can be fulfilled only by being dropping down from heaven. This is an ordinary hope, but still a rare reality for so many of the world’s people, including Americans. There’s a huge divide between the rich and the poor in this country and it’s getting worse, and if it becomes institutional and generational, we’re in trouble. It hasn’t been this bad since before the Great Depression. A majority of Americans think this is unhealthy for the country, but it continues. Is this offering justice to the poor? We hear a lot about how Christmas is under attack. And I get it. When someone sees me in collar, I would imagine they can figure out that it’s safe to say “Merry Christmas” to me instead of “Happy Holidays.” I get it when people have to be so careful as to be almost paranoid about showing signs in public that they are Christmas people. But if we want to fight for Christmas in the public square, then what we really need to do is work for justice, because Christmas is the hope of Immanuel made real.
Immanuel, “God is with us,” Jesus. They’re all one in the same. Immanuel means Jesus with us here and now. And if we really believe in this, then it means acting accordingly here and now. Immanuel means that religion is not relegated to the next life. A faith in Immanuel has to touch upon justice because we can’t begin to understand Immanuel without justice. Immanuel means that our morality is not only directed to God in heaven, but to “God with us,” and “God with us” leaves evidence of a better world in its wake. This means that our faith and our religion must express themselves in the way we build society. As Christmas people, there has to be concern for the poor and the afflicted. As Christmas people, there has to be a willingness to try and make a difference.
Today I have asked some of our younger members to take on the roles usually performed by others a bit older. This year I have been spending time with the students of our School of Christian Living on each first Sunday of the month. This month, as we began Advent, and as the advertising ramped up for Christmas, I spoke to the kids about preparing for Christmas less as “getting” and more as “giving.” In the church, this giving is called ministry and it is greatly honoured. Before Mass a couple of the young people took over Richard’s job as greeter, they will also serve here at the altar as they always do, Emily already read today’s Lesson, they will accept the Mass offering, Tristen is videotaping, and others will accept your donations after Mass for the Christmas flowers and the USO. This idea of giving and service is at the heart of celebrating Christmas. It’s about thinking beyond ourselves. It’s thinking about others. That’s the first step toward justice, and that’s a sign of Immanuel.
Isaiah’s cry of exasperation about wearying God and men was a condemnation of authority that only played games with words like justice and compassion. But Immanuel was Isaiah’s hope that things would be different, that the forgotten would be remember, that the trapped would be offered a helping hand. As those who gathered for our Penitential Service this past Wednesday heard, “‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these …,’” said Jesus, “‘you did it to me.’” (Matt. 25:40) That’s always the voice of Immanuel. That’s bringing Christmas out in the public square. In these last days before we celebrate the joy and mystery of that nighttime birth once heralded by angels and now symbolized for us by the fourth candle of the Advent Wreath, let us try to better appreciate Immanuel’s message that the justice and compassion we work for in our society is a sign that God is with us, is a sign that we are Christmas people. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo