In honor of Christmas, I wanted to share something I read recently that I’ve been really enriched by. It relates to a comment Bill asked the other day,
This week we hear in the readings the old testament prophesy about the one to come being called Emmanuel. Then we hear the angel tell Joseph to name the child Jesus. I know they are supposed to mean the same, but how?
My original response was that “My understanding is that the early Church didn’t view Emmanuel as a personal name, but as one of the Divine titles. So the Emmanuel (“God with us”) prophesy isn’t telling us the name of the Virgin’s Baby, but who that Baby really is. Jesus, in contrast, is His Personal Name.” I still think that answer is fundamentally correct. In fact, it’s reaffirmed by the first reading from Midnight Mass, which is taken from Isaiah 9. Here’s Isaiah 9:6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Obviously, those are titles, not Jesus’ actual name, and Isaiah 7:14 follows this same pattern.
But it turns out that there’s more than I realized. Emmanuel is unique, in that it is prophetic, in a way, of the name of Christ. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, in Volume 1 of Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word (a particularly fitting book to quote from, since I started reading it after getting it for my dad for Christmas), spoke about the radical significance behind Matthew’s translation in Matthew 1:24 of Emmanuel from Hebrew, the language the Jews considered sacred, to Greek, the language of the Gentiles and the world. He sees in this translation a parallel between the Old and New Covenant, and how God is viewed under each. From there, he says:
On the subject of Jesus as “translator” of God, Fray Luis de Leon, the Spanish Dominican who was also a great writer, has left us an unforgettable formulation in his treatise on The Names of Christ. He says that the sacred Name of God in the Old Testament, יהוה, the unpronounceable tetragrammaton , is found again in the Hebrew name of Jesus, ישוע, with the addition of the radicals from the verb “to save” and the vowels necessary to pronounce the divine Name. In this way, while the Name of God is so holy, mysterious, and pure that it cannot be pronounced by a human mouth, the addition of Christ’s divine will to save mankind “translates,” that is, transfers, the sanctity of God to our level as creatures and at last makes it possible for us, too, to pronounce God’s true Name, which cannot be any other than Jesus, and thus be saved, All else that we subsequently come to know about God rests on this primary revelation: He is the One who saves us in Jesus.
It’s an amazing insight. Now, go back to the prophesy in Isaiah 7:14. The name Emmanuel means “God with us,” and the name Jesus explains how and why God is with us. That is, He’s with us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and He’s with us to save.
Merry Christmas everyone!