Today is the feast of the Annunciation, when Christians celebrate Mary’s humble acceptance of her big part in God’s Big Plan, becoming the mother of Jesus and thereby the Mother of God.
But what caught my attention today was one of the assigned readings from the Hebrew Bible, the prophecy of Immanuel: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the maiden is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7.14).
I was struck today by the comfort in these words. The oracle speaks to a moment when the kingdom of Judah is at war against an alliance of Israel and Syria and the war is not going well. Jerusalem is surrounded, the royal line looks to be at an end, and people are giving up hope. The prophet offers them this message of hope in this hopeless situation: a baby to secure the royal line, whose name will be “God-is-with-us.” and by the time he understands the word ‘no’ the political threat will have passed.
Flashing forward to the story of Mary, a similar theme emerges. She is visited by an angel who tells her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The angel tells her that she will give birth to a son, who will fulfill all of the old expectations of Isaiah’s prophecy. Mary accepts this message with the famous words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). Later, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, we get a better glimpse about what this birth means:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever (vv. 46-55).
This is, then, like the message of Isaiah, a message of hope. In many ways, the people of God are in a worse situation now than they were in Isaiah’s day. While nominally independent, they have been passed around and occupied for centuries by a seemingly never-ending succession of Empires. The religious leadership is divided, the king corrupt, Rome’s rule oppressive, and the people poor. Into this mess, another Immanuel is born — another message of hope in a hopeless situation: The tables are turning. God is with us (Matthew 1.23).
We should never take these words lightly. There can be no greater source of hope than this: God is with us. Take a moment and stress each word in that sentence:
GOD is with us: We have the best possibly ally and champion.
God IS with us: We declare this as an act of faith, for our God is faithful.
God is WITH us: We are not alone, no matter how scary and uncertain the times.
God is with US: We are in this together, with God’s help.
In these strange, stressful times, the message of the Annunciation resounds in our hearts like a church bell summoning us to prayer and praise. It offers us courage in our fear; strength in our weakness; hope in our anxiety. We are not in this alone.
GOD is with us. God IS with us. God is WITH us. God is with US.