By H. Boone Porter
The prophecies from the Book of Isaiah read during the past two Sundays pointed beyond time and this present order of the world to a new creation. This Fourth Sunday of Advent we hear a prophecy to be fulfilled within our world; namely, a young mother is to bear a son named Immanuel.
The exact words used in this passage require some explaining — as is often the case with important words in the Bible or elsewhere. Isaiah 7:14 uses a Hebrew word to designate this mother which means young woman, almah. Later, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the word parthenos or virgin was used.
The Greek version was widely used in the Roman world by Jews and by the writers of the New Testament. Thus it is the Greek rendering of Isaiah which provides the specific prophecy of our Lord’s virgin birth, and it is accordingly so quoted in the Gospel appointed for this Sunday (Matthew 1:23).
This is an interesting example of how one kind of prophetic utterance, coming from the mouth of an ancient Hebrew preacher, acquired a somewhat different meaning over the course of the centuries, and this new meaning was adopted and canonized in the New Testament.
The Spirit of God works in many ways, and Christians can be grateful that here, as in many other places, the words of the Old Testament have blossomed with new meanings in regard to Christ. The name Immanuel (sometimes appearing as a name in modern usage as Emmanuel or simply Manuel) means literally “with us God.”
As the son of a human mother, the blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus was fully human, and his human nature was the product of this created world of which we also are part. At the same time, he was and is God the Son, the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence, although Jesus was born “late in time,” after the world had existed for millions of years, he can still be called “the first born of all creation,” as we acclaim him in Eucharistic Prayer B (BCP, p. 369), which many parishes use in the Christmas season.
This interesting phrase comes from Colossians 1:15, where the “beloved Son” is also called “the image of the invisible God” (the image after which Adam was created). In the next verse, he is designated as the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. A mind-boggling thought! This is also expressed in the Nicene Creed — “Through him all things were made.”
In both cases, in the Creed and in Colossians, it is the eternal person of God the Son who is referred to. Yet this eternal Son did, in the fullness of time, enter our created universe, on this little planet, through the agency of a human mother. It is no wonder that all generations of Christians call her blessed. Her Son is indeed the “with-us God.”
The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This essay first appeared in the December 19, 1983 issue of The Living Church.