Emmanuel: In Jesus, God is made present to all mankind

Father John A. Kiley

After 20 centuries of Christianity, the edge has been somewhat taken off St. Matthew’s insightful designation for Jesus Christ: “... and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which is God with us.” The reader should also note that this description of the nearness of God through Christ neatly concludes St. Matthew’s Gospel as well. The ascending Jesus Christ proclaims to his puzzled Apostles: “Behold I am with you always until the end of the age.” So the nearness of God, the presence of God, the closeness of God to his people through Christ is fundamental to the Gospel message.

Although the God of the Old Testament is not the fearful God that people who do not read the Old Testament make him out to be, believers in Old Testament times certainly had to keep their respect for the Divine Presence. Moses was told to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. The prophet placed a veil over his face to lessen the effect of the divine encounter. The hapless Uzzah was struck dead for merely touching the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s presence with the traveling Jewish community. The high priest was allowed but once a year to enter the Divine Presence in the holy place and utter the name of YHWH. The holiness of God, the otherness of God, the separateness of God was the Old Testament’s way of expressing the uniqueness of God, the supremacy of God, the exaltedness of God.

But even if the standoffishness of God is a recurrent theme in the Old Testament, this is all by way of shocking the world when the incarnation of Jesus Christ would finally take place. The God who hitherto dwelt on the heights of Mount Sinai, the God who before this was reserved in the temple’s inner sanctum, the God whose name dared not be uttered was now in Christ made present to all mankind. God himself would take flesh through the Virgin. God himself would walk the roads of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. God himself would touch the tongue of the mute, the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf. God himself would eat with sinners, argue with authorities and accept the homage of the disadvantaged. And finally, God himself would experience betrayal, endure suffering and undergo that most earthly occurrence, death. In Christ, God and man would indeed meet.

The Judeo-Christian tradition began with an appreciation of God’s fearsome majesty in the heavens. While never compromising this majesty, God did condescend to meet man in history. God favored the dutiful Noah. God justified the faithful Abraham. God liberated the luckless Hebrews. God guided the wanderings Jews. God raised up David and Ezra and the Maccabees. This same tradition then gave that splendid but caring God the human face of Jesus Christ at the Incarnation. Jesus would continue to guide, guard and direct the people of God as YHWH had in the Old Testament but now Jesus would actually share the lot of humanity, meeting mankind on every level save sin. Truly Jesus would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. Christ would indeed be God-with-us. The Divine Presence was sealed within human flesh and confirmed in human history.

The Catholic believer, measuring the gradual descent of God into the continuing story of mankind, cannot help but reflect on God’s sustained presence to the human family through the church. God is unfailingly near in the celebration of the sacraments. God is compellingly at hand in the words of Scripture. God is infallibly close in the solemn teachings of the church. God is reassuringly approachable to the faithful at prayer. God is as handy as the beggar at one’s doorstep. And clearly God is overwhelmingly present to his people through the Eucharist. The presence of God to his people which began with the conversations in Eden marvelously culminates in the dialogue of the soul with Christ who has just been received in Holy Communion.

The Eucharist is the Old Testament come true with a vengeance. God is indeed with us. God is, in fact, one of us and he invites us to become one with him. God assumed our humanity that we might assume God’s divinity. Christ is the means through which this interchange takes place.