One of the most common Gospel passages that is read in churches across the globe during the season of Advent is Matthew 1.
This chapter, located at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, describes the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of the Messiah. In this passage we also find the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means God with us)” (Matt 1:23).
Commenting on this verse, the great 18th century nonconformist minister and Bible expositor Matthew Henry writes that Emmanuel is a “mysterious name, and very precious”. And, indeed, it is!
That mysterious name is especially precious to us today, in the strange and dangerous circumstances in which we find ourselves. For in the past months, our world has been ravaged by a deadly pandemic that it has not witnessed for more than two generations.
As I am writing this article in October 2020, there are more than 43 million cases of infection worldwide and more than one million deaths. A pathogen that is invisible to the naked eye has pushed healthcare systems to the brink of despair, brought the economies of many countries to their knees and many cities to an eerie standstill.
In the grip of this global health crisis where many have perished, the question that is repeatedly asked (by religious and non-religious people alike) is: Where is God? Where is God in this pandemic?
The Lectionary readings for the season of Advent supply the answer to this question. It is found in that “mysterious and precious” name, Emmanuel.
Indeed, Emmanuel—God with us—has brought comfort and strength to untold millions whose lives have in one way or another been molested or devastated by coronavirus. For Emmanuel does not only point to the nature of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ; it also contains a promissory element.
To profess that name, to affirm that God is with us, is therefore not only to acknowledge His omnipresence. It is also to be assured that He is faithfully pursuing us in every way, always inviting us into a deeper communion with Him. For the ever-present God is the God of the covenant, whose very nature is unconditional love.
The omnipresent God is never passive. Not only is He close to us, He is also actively at work in our world. Thus, even in the midst of the chaos and confusion inflicted by COVID-19, the ever-present God is mysteriously and undauntedly working out His purposes in creation.
To affirm the presence of God at a time unprecedented crisis is therefore to be assured of His sovereign control over the situation.
To be sure, Emmanuel is a name that can only be uttered by faith. The truth it declares can only be received by faith. And the vision of reality it presents is perceptible only to the eyes of faith—for they see much deeper and with greater clarity than do our physical eyes.
If faith’s vision seems incredulously counterintuitive—finding hope where others see only despair and perceiving the good where only evil and destruction are evident—it is because it sees all of reality in light of its supreme object: the almighty God who is redemptively governing this world by His sovereign love.
As we look at the months ahead, the forecast is indeed frightfully bleak. Many countries and regions across the globe—the US, the UK, Europe, the African sub-continent, India, Indonesia and Malaysia—are seeing troubling spikes in the number of infections. And with winter approaching, many countries are bracing for the coronavirus to spread exponentially.
In the wake of such uncertainties, the lectionary readings for this season urge us not to be afraid or despair.
The God whom we worship does not stand at a distance, aloof from the suffering and misery of humanity. He is the God who has become one of us in the incarnation, the God who suffered and died to redeem this sin-marred world. And He is at this very moment working out His purposes by His faithful presence.
Emmanuel is God’s word to us in this time of global crisis. It is a word of faith. It is a word of hope. And where faith and hope are present, there is no place for fear.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).