Cycle A | Advent | Week 4
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
A priest once said that he likes babies in his church especially when they cry because someone then takes them away. I think however that the “noise” of babies in church communicates something deeper – hope. The birth of a child is a sign of hope. That so few children are born today especially in “developed” societies is a disturbing lack of hope and what hope brings with it, namely, confidence in the future.
Nothing can be done in the world without hope. When people want to give up on life, we give them “hope” to live. Christian hope is not mere optimism which suggests that things will turn out all right even if I can’t quite see how. Christian hope rather teaches that when I hope for fulfilment, this hope is not deceptive because Christ is in the midst of my situation. Jesus once disclosed that whoever welcomes a child in his name welcomes him (Mark 9:37).
Isaiah’s prophecy in this Sunday’s First Reading celebrates the birth of a child as good news for the wearied people of Judah. Their King Ahaz had refused to join the military alliance of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria, preferring rather to trust in God for security. So, the allied forces decided to crush his regime in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and install a puppet king who would do their bidding. On hearing this, Ahaz and his people were dejected because Judah was seriously outnumbered.
God sent the prophet Isaiah to go and assure Ahaz that this plot of the allied forces of Israel and Syria against Judah shall fail. For Ahaz and his people, this assurance was simply too good to be true. So God asks Ahaz to ask for any sign to re-assure him. But Ahaz demonstrates extraordinary faith by refusing to ask for a sign, preferring instead to stand on the word of God as pronounced by the prophet. (Yes, Children of God do not put God to the test even when God invites them to do so).
God is impressed but decided all the same to re-assure Ahaz with a sign. And the sign is that a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel which means ”God is with us”. In other words, Jesus will be the very presence of God the Father in our world. St. John’s Gospel began with the affirmation, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Thus, the primary sign of God’s love for us (and for Ahaz) is that God comes to share life with us to assure us that life is liveable.
The Gospels illustrate how events in the life of Jesus are fulfilments of this assurance God made from of old. And God’s presence among us does not end with the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Before his ascension, Jesus assures his followers, “I am with you always, to the very end of time”. Right down to the present, Jesus continues to be Immanuel – God’s presence among us. Through his Body the Church, its sacraments and the witness of the Christian community, Jesus continues to be visibly present in the world.
In a world that prizes control and independence, we are constantly urged to take charge of our lives. If we fail, it is usually assumed that we just didn’t try hard enough. But the lesson here is that history is not just circumstantial occurrence of events but a purposeful narrative by a great author (God) who is in-charge. His intervention in the Gospel resolves the impasse of Mary’s inexplicable pregnancy, demonstrating that He is present and in control even at the crossroads of our lives.
The ordinary ways of God’s coming, presence and action among His people is too simple to be true. The average Jew of the time would find it absurd that this “Immanuel” would be born of a woman as a normal, suckling baby since popular belief then was that the Messiah, fully-grown, would drop suddenly from the skies on the Temple mount, in all his divine regalia and power. They found it hard to reconcile their expectations with the reality of the man Jesus whom they knew to be born and raised in their midst.
Like them, we also wait for the Immanuel, the coming of God among us. How do we expect God to come among us? How does God work among us? Sometimes the problem is not that God is not with us but that we do not recognize the ways of God’s presence and action among us. Once, as a last resort in a very difficult counselling session, I told a lady that the husband she thinks is a devil could actually be Jesus trying to determine her tolerance threshold. She stormed out of my office.