Today the sun rides low over the Wicklow hills on this shortest day of the year. Hopeful throngs were disappointed when fog and clouds prevented the rising sun from glancing down the long channel in the great Newgrange tumulus. But here in the “sunny southeast,” the day remained dry and clear, unperturbed by the turmoil that seems to be roiling the greater world beyond these tranquil hills.
As Christian peoples mark the final days of Advent, looking forward to the fulfilment of the great promise of peace and goodwill that accompanied the birth of Jesus, it remains impossible to ignore the seemingly inescapable poverty, homelessness, political oppression, violence, and now increasing climate disruption that, with the exception of the latter, also prevailed when Jesus was born. But the message of hope endures.
Our hope does not lie in prosperity and political calm, or even serene weather. The scripture readings appointed for today remind us that the promise of God-with-us does not point to any earthly regime or condition, although we long for and work for greater and more far-reaching justice, peace, and a stable environment. Nor does salvation mean economic stability and ever-increasing wealth, even while we labor for a more equitable sharing of the goods of the natural and social world.
Beyond the spurious claims of an over-heated economy and materialistic way of life, what hope does the coming celebration of Christmas offer the waiting world?
The promise extends back well over two thousand years. This Sunday, we first recall the prediction given by the prophet to Ahaz, not the
worst of the kings of Judah, but faltering in his reliance on God in the face of battle. Timidly, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign that the Lord would be with him when one is offered to him, so Isaiah delivers it anyway, a sign later extended to all humankind in the light of the birth of Jesus.
A young girl – almah, in Hebrew — was already with a child who would in turn be a sign of God’s presence and favor in the coming years. A pregnant girl, the birth of a child in poverty and exile. What a strange kind of sign. Who she was, we do not know. We know who the mother of Jesus was, however. Matthew and Luke are particularly intent on this, and Matthew specifically recalls the prophecy of Isaiah in her regard. And her child’s.
Perhaps it was the angel’s initial message that made the difference — not only to Joseph, but also to Mary herself, Luke tells us, and to the shepherds, and later to the women at the tomb, to Peter and to all of us – do not be afraid. There is good news, hope to believe in while still struggling in a world of sadness and strife, facing what may seem like hopeless odds. Like Joseph, the bewildered young betrothed, if our hearts are clear of clutter, of the selfishness, greed and bitterness that beget the world’s pain, we will hear the angel’s word in our own hearts. Do not be afraid. And like the young women chosen to be a sign, we can conceive the Word of God in our hearts and give birth in our lives to Immanuel — God with us.