Since I started college, the Christmas season, previously warm in the presence of loved ones and magical in the glow of twinkling tree lights, has felt oddly disjointed. For one, as a member of an a cappella group, I start Christmas in October, before the rest of the world is even allowed to listen to Christmas music, in order to have a decent set prepared for our annual concert. Thus the Christmas season begins with a checklist:
“Learn X songs in Y weeks.” (1)
Then, the day after the concert, a reminder of impending finals rears its ugly head, and suddenly, the “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” appear to have run out. Projects and final reports beckon my nose to the grindstone for the next week, and the Christmas season continues with the grave call to action:
“Survive the next week, even if you don’t know how.”
By the grace and power of God, I do survive this week, albeit with a few bumps and bruises and more than a few hours of sleep to catch up on. My mind finally begins to slow down from 60 mph to a leisurely 0. Time for a quiet drive home and some relaxation, right?
Wrong! “Remember all that Christmas shopping you have to do! And you know, business school application deadlines are just over the horizon…” My mind wants to sit still for a while, but my mental checklist says, “Better get moving, quick!” Have you ever tried pushing a car to 60 mph when it’s not even on? The Christmas season has now degenerated into a cacophonous restlessness, my mind pulling me in one direction and my to-do list in the other. Is “peace on earth and goodwill to men” to be had for me at all this year?
Despite all of this, for the last two months, God has been gracefully teaching me about the power of his Son’s name - Immanuel, or Emmanuel (depending on which translation you read). As we were choosing songs for our Christmas concert, I came across the hauntingly beautiful “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and, after listening to the lyrics several times, the meaning of the name came alive to me in a way it hadn’t before. To explain the name Emmanuel, I have to take it pretty far back...
This name is mentioned twice in the Bible, once in Isaiah and again in the Gospel of Matthew. In the first, Judah is living in the tension of war with its two northern neighbors, Israel and Syria. The kings of these two nations want Ahaz, king of Judah, to partner with him to defeat Assyria, but Ahaz refuses, so the armies of Israel and Syria attack Jerusalem. Ahaz, reeling from this attack, wants to seek out assistance from the Assyrian king, but the prophet Isaiah delivers a prophecy, a promise from God that Judah would not crumble from the attacks of these two northern kings. He says,
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel...for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste."
(Isaiah 7:14, 16)
The second mention occurs hundreds of years later - this time, by an angel instead of a prophet. By this time, Rome had established itself as the predominant world power over Israel and Syria, and in the small town of Nazareth, the angel Gabriel told a man named Joseph,
"She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Just as Isaiah had prophesied, shortly thereafter, the child that changed the world forever entered the picture - Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. These three words, if we let them sink in deep, revolutionize the way we see our circumstances and relationships.
If God is with us, who can be against us? If God is with me, I can have hope in a day when the trials at hand will be over, both in this life and the one to come. If God is with me, then I’m not actually alone on those 4 AM nights when I feel hopeless and alone writing those incredibly frustrating final reports. In those conversations with broken-down friends when I don’t know what to say, He provides words and loving company. On days when I have no reason to be joyful, He can fill me with the joy of the Lord, and in His mysterious ways, that joy can be spread to others too. In the midst of the tasks life constantly hurls at us, when there is no peace to be found in my world or in the world at large, He can give me assurance and peace in my heart that He has a plan for my life and for the world. A few thousand years ago, God promised that He would be with me, not by sending a new idea or a pamphlet to read, but by sending his only Son, a human being, to die in my place and open up the possibility of a living, breathing relationship with Him. And by entering into a relationship with Him, I can show other people that God is with them too.
Since I started college, I have become utterly convinced that God speaks to me most clearly through people, and I believe with all my heart that the friends I’ve made in SBSB are some of those people. I struggle to express with words how thankful I am for SBSB for living out “God with me” every single day and being harbingers of joy when I am not. They are so deeply rooted in God’s promises, and they have seen me at my worst and loved me unswervingly. They assure me that God is with me even when I cannot see Him right in front of me.
My responsibilities for the time being haven’t vanished, but I can rest in the fact that Christ is my constant companion - fully understanding, fully loving, and fully with me.
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(1) Y < W, where W is the number of weeks you thought were left in the semester. Similarly, X > C, where C is the comfortable number of songs you can learn in Y weeks. Little did you know you’d get some engineering out of this blog post! :)