“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matt. 1:23 NRSV)
The story of Advent begins in the wilderness, where we meet the wild and woolly figure of John the Baptist.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:1–3 NRSV)
The word wilderness signifies an uninhabitable place beyond the bounds of human activity, a place where the wild things are. It is a place where we feel completely vulnerable. Indeed, as used in the Bible, the essential quality of wilderness is the feeling desolate, deserted and being alone. But the story of Advent and Christmas is that we are not alone; God is with us.
For Christians, this sense of God’s presence is not something vague or intangible. It is a real presence, the presence of one whose birth was foretold by the prophets and whose coming was heralded by John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”. It is through the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ that we experience God’s presence. Surely this what our observance of Advent and Christmas teaches us: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
We might know what it feels like to be desolate, deserted and alone. Indeed many of us might have suffered the loss of a loved one, experienced the breakdown of a relationship, or felt the pain of being neglected or rejected. Perhaps in those circumstances Advent and Christmas can feel like a time of wilderness. All of us live in a world in which God’s presence is often strongly denied, or rarely acknowledged. We are all living in a kind of wilderness, desperate for some good news.
And the good news of Jesus Christ is this: we are not alone. Jesus speaks to each of us–in whatever wilderness we are in–words of great comfort and joy. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Unseen but real is God’s presence, a promise for all of humankind. “God is with us.”
James J. Rawls, On The Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith (WestBow Press, 2018)