God with us (in the lab)

It’s hard to predict how I will feel at the end of the Christmas break. Will I be refreshed and eager to get back to work? Or will the thought fill me with dread? Or both?

It can be especially difficult when your day-to-day work is somewhat mind numbing. Every PhD has these phases. (If yours doesn’t, I want to know your secret!) How can you go from pondering the birth of Jesus Christ one week, to spend the next week wrestling with your data, poring over arcane ancient texts, fighting with test tubes, dredging through reams of articles, or debugging your spaghetti-like code?

It all depends on how we approach Christmas. Some ways of reflecting on the nativity leave us wanting to escape our earthly lives. Jesus comes to this world to rescue us from it and to take us back with him to heaven. And the angels only add to the effect. In Cecil Frances Alexander’s words,

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars His children crowned,
All in white shall wait around.

The problem here is not the ‘waiting around’ (though modern versions of ‘Once in royal’ understandably alter this!), but the longing to flee this ‘poor lowly’ place to be with Jesus in an ethereal paradise. How can you want to return to your monotonous research after such a glorious vision?

But this is to completely miss the point of the Christmas message.

First, the angels. Their message was not, ‘It’s really nice up here; come and join us!’ On the contrary, they spoke of peace on earth. Edmund Sears expressed it well:

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Second, that word ‘Immanuel’. This appears in Matthew’s account (1:22–23):

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).

It’s easy to miss the point of this. It’s not simply ‘God and us together’. Nor is it some aberration, contrary to God’s usual behaviour. No, this is God continuing his movement from heaven to earth, to rescue his creation, and to fill it with his glory.

‘God with us’ is a theme that returns in the last book of the Bible. Christopher Wright makes these connections in his book, The God I don’t understand: reflections on tough questions of faith:

[A]t the end of [Revelation, John’s] picture is not of our going ‘up’ to watch what God is doing, but God coming ‘down’ to live among us and make his presence intrinsic to all that we are doing. Not us with God in heaven, but God with us on earth. …

Immanuel means ‘God with us’ — and that’s how the Bible ends. God coming to be with us (repeated three times in Rev. 21:3), not us going off to be with God.

So as you return to your research next week (or whatever you are doing, and whenever your holiday ends), don’t dream of going ‘home’ to God in heaven. But rejoice that the Word has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, and that one day he will return to be with us eternally. Joy to the world indeed!

I will close with a familiar verse by Phillips Brooks:

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

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