I imagine many of you heard the music of Georg Friedrich Handel as you heard that first reading tonight. All those amazing names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. It’s at the heart of what we are here celebrating tonight—that God came to be one of us, to live among us, to walk alongside us.
But I did have to chuckle earlier this week as I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s commentary on this passage.
“Everlasting Father—what kind of a name is that for a child?!”
It is a little odd to have all these great big names for such a tiny baby. I imagine his parents weren’t thinking such big thoughts on that night, two thousand years ago. They were focused on the birth, and getting him clean, keeping him warm and safe in unfamiliar surroundings. Probably a little overwhelmed by the arrival of the shepherds, and perplexed by the story they were told.
I doubt in that moment they would have been willing to allow all the things those names require to be placed on their baby boy. In the moment, they were content with the name the angel told them.
Well, names, actually.
We know this baby by the name Jesus, and that was his name. But when the angel appeared to Joseph and told him everything that was going to happen, he gave him another name. A name from a different, earlier chapter of Isaiah.
The name Immanuel. A name that means “God is with us.”
A few weeks ago I was visiting someone recovering from surgery, and he shared with me the devotional book he has been reading. Each day is written as a conversation between a wise teacher and a seeker. He handed me the book and I opened to a random page, only to find a wonderful reflection on this name, Immanuel.
The wise teacher pointed out that it is a complete sentence, God is with us, and challenged the seeker to think about all the stories of Jesus in the Bible, and replace them with this alternative.
Think of all those stories of Jesus—the adult Jesus—that we love. Instead of Jesus feeding the five thousand, it would be “God is with us, feeding the five thousand.”
God is with us, calming the storm.
God is with us, healing the sick.
God is with us, freeing the captives.
God is with us, welcoming the stranger.
God is with us, in the manger. God is with us, on the cross.
Where Jesus is, there God is.
And where Jesus is—so are we. I have found that so comforting at difficult times in my life, to remember that God is always with me.
But there is more than comfort in that name. There is also invitation. Or challenge.
God is not just calming the storm—God is with us, calming the storm. Feeding the five thousand, healing the sick, freeing the captives, welcoming the stranger. We are called to be there too.
God-with-us asks us to continue to make a difference: to continue the work of calming, feeding, healing, freeing. Long after we’ve taken down the tree and put away the decorations and stopped singing the carols, we are invited to carry this spirit of Christmas in our hearts, and through our words and actions let others see the power of God: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
What we celebrate on Christmas is not the gifts or the food or the shopping or the decorating or saying “Merry Christmas” to one and all. What we celebrate on Christmas is that God became incarnate—became one of us. And God-with-us walked this earth, lived a full human life, experienced all the joys and sorrows, love and heartbreak every human feels. Faced death rather than betray God’s love. Was raised to new life because God never gives up on us.
Because God is with us. Always.