Advent 4 :: What’s in a name?

Matthew 1.18-25


“They shall name him Emmanuel"

What’s in a name?

Every year, at around this time, just a few days or so before Christmas, pastors and theologians and Bible geeks and just plain regular folk banter back and forth about the translation of one simple word: “virgin.” In Hebrew, the word from Isaiah’s prophecy to Ahaz [ch. 7.14] clearly means “young woman,” whereas the Greek usage of St. Matthew means “virgin.” Which is the better of the two? Which is more clearly the “correct” translation? Does it matter? What are the implications for today? And so on, and so forth, ad nauseam.

While not wanting to lessen the import of this centuries-old discussion, there is another word encountered in today’s Gospel reading [and in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah] that might elicit more rapt attention. “Emmanuel” or, as transliterated through the Hebrew, Immanu-el, meaning “with us [is] God.”

Isaiah uses this term for the child-soon-to-be-born to indicate to King Ahaz and his people that God is with them and hears their pleas regarding the kings of Aram and Ephraim who had an intent to wage war with Ahaz and the people of Judah. God will be with you and “those two smoking stubs of firebrands” will not succeed in their plans.

St. Matthew takes this name and applies it to Jesus [another interesting name, which means “God saves”]. He indicates that the child to be born of Mary will be named Emmanuel, God with us. Now that is a name which matters a great deal indeed! Matthew’s Gospel is a working out of the life of the One-who-is-with-us. Over and over he gives his audience—namely the Jewish community of which he was a member—reasons to understand and believe that Jesus is the very presence of God among the people of God as foretold by the ancient scriptures. “Jesus is the miraculous incarnation of God who has come into the world to save us: God with us, to the end of time!” as Matthew might say. In fact, even at the very end of his Gospel, Jesus instructs the disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Emmanuel through all time.

As we come to within days of our yearly celebration of the birth of God-with-us, let us never forget that this “with-us-ness” is forever and ever. Amen!

Link to RCL Lectionary for Advent 4, Year A

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