‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1:23)
To speak of God being with us might be good news, or bad news, depending on what we believe God’s character is like.
When Nazi troops marched into Paris in 1940, their regulation belt buckle bore the legend ‘Gott mit Uns’, God with us, and I wonder how the French felt about what that God was visiting on them? The badge of the English Defence League bears a cross, below which the Latin inscriptions translates: ‘In this sign you will conquer‘ invoking the militant power of an Anglo-Saxon warrior God.
Even people who do not espouse a political or military cause find themselves readily imagining a vengeful God. When someone encounters personal tragedy or misfortune, I find them looking for what they might have done wrong, for which this devastation is punishment, a retribution for a past sin. Or they may simply see their pain as a sign that God has brutally inflicted a tragedy or, at the very least, been asleep on the job allowing catastrophe to befall them.
The ‘Son of God’ in the world of the Christmas stories is a title for Caesar, presiding over the brutal imperial army occupying Jesus’s homeland. The Roman God-with-us means domination by brute force — a fearful God-with-us.
The stories of Christmas were written to challenge and subvert this dark idea of God’s character. Matthew’s God-with-us is hunted by a king, one who has to leave his country. Luke’s God-with-us is visited by the poorest in the neighbourhood. This is not a brutal God, this is a God alongside people who are powerless, people who have been done to, people who feel forgotten. This is the character of the God of the Christian Gospels.
Andrew Spurr is Vicar of Evesham with Norton and Lenchwick in the diocese of Worcester.
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