We talk a lot about Immanuel—God with us—during Advent and Christmas, which makes sense because the narrative of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1 uses that name. So the image of a God who is with us is generally accompanied by the glow of Christmas lights and images of a cherubic baby in sweet-smelling straw.
The language of Immanuel gets lost for us at other times in the calendar year, however. We move from this knowledge of an incarnate God—one who took on flesh and made a dwelling among us—to something else. We focus on miracles, power, glory, or sacrifice, and for some reason or another, we forget that all of this is not separate from a God who is with us.
In the season of Lent, we walk through moments of darkness, repentance, and grief. We look at our own mortality, seeking to make sense of it—not out of some sort of morbid obsession but out of a deep desire to know God more. We walk directly into the darkness, that we might focus more upon the light. But we have had two seasons of Lent in a row now that were not just Lent. They were Lent in the midst of a global pandemic, in the midst of immense grief, in the midst of what many have described as a perpetual season of Lent. It has indeed been a long season in which we have been and are continually confronted with our mortality and with our need for a Savior as we have walked (however unwillingly) directly into the darkness. Perhaps now is as a good a time as any to embrace the reminder of Jesus as Immanuel, God with us.
From time to time I find myself gripped with anxiety in the middle of the night. Fears of an unknown future for my children, fears for my church, or any other number of big and weighty concerns flood my mind. I often reach out to make sure my husband is there. I’m not searching to be saved, or for him to somehow resolve these problems. I’m looking to know that, in the midst of the darkness, I have a hand to hold; to know that I am not alone.
I’ve always been captivated by the Jewish idea of sitting shiva. Shiva is the seven days after the loss of a loved one when mourners leave their door open for others to come and be present with them in their grief. It looks different for different families, but those who are coming to be with the grieving family aren’t there to fix anything but just rather to be present with them. It’s reminiscent of the command in Romans 12:15 to “mourn with those who mourn.” Often the request is that the person bringing condolences follow the lead of the mourners: if they want to talk, listen; if they want to be silent, be silent.
But maybe here and now it would be good for us to remember that the hope of Immanuel was never meant to be a promise that we only hold close at Christmastime.
The world remains in an immense season of collective grief, even though Lent has ended twice and we have celebrated Easter twice since the pandemic began. We have lost so much in so many ways, and we may not even recognize the enormity of our losses yet. Our desire may be to seek answers, to try to solve problems, to move as quickly past the pain as possible. But maybe here and now it would be good for us to remember that the hope of Immanuel was never meant to be a promise that we only hold close at Christmastime. It’s a promise for us now, in the midst of our grief. God is with us, God mourns with us, God grieves with us, God holds our hand in the midst of the darkness.
So as we reflect, as we mourn, as we grieve, as we face the darkness—may we find hope in a God who is truly Immanuel, God with us. We are not alone.