God is with us!
Understand all nations,
And submit yourselves,
For God is with us!
Hear this, even to the farthest bounds of the earth.
Submit yourselves, 0 mighty ones;
If you rise up again in your might,
You will be again overthrown.
The Lord shall destroy all who take counsel together,
And the word which you speak shall not abide with you.
For we do not fear your terror,
And we are not troubled.
But we will ascribe holiness to the Lord our God
And Him we will fear.
And if I put my trust in Him
He shall be my sanctification.
I will set my hope on Him
And through Him I shall be saved,
Lo, I and the children whom God has given me.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
For to us a Child is born,
To us a Son is given.
And the government shall be upon His shoulder,
And of His peace there will be no end.
And His name shall be called the Angel of the Great Council;
The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father;
The Prince of Peace;
The Father of the world to come!
(Is 8:9-10, 17-18; 9:2, 6-7 LXX)
These lines of the prophetic writing, which are included in many of the songs of the services of the Winter Pascha, are also referred to directly in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). (Mt 1:18-23; IS 7:14)
This translation is from the Church’s service book, following the Septuagint text. Some people think that the Isaiah canticle is specifically pre. scribed for the festivals of the Lord’s Nativity and Epiphany, but actually the song is part of great compline whenever it is chanted, as, for example, on the evenings of the first week of Great Lent.
It once happened that a person hearing the Orthodox vigil on Christmas for the first time in English was greatly angered by the singing of this prophetic canticle. She came to the priest, very upset, and asked him how such a terrible song could be sung in church. When the priest asked her which song she meant, and discovered which it was, he was surprised that this woman, who was a member of the Orthodox Church, had never heard the song before. It turned out that she had indeed heard it, but had never understood its meaning clearly because of the foreign language in which the services had been celebrated. Her difficulty was with the fact that the verse said, “God is with us!” and that it called all people to understand and submit themselves. How unbelievably presumptuous, she declared, that the Orthodox would solemnly proclaim that God was with them and then be even more arrogant in demanding the others understand and submit! Although the woman was gravely mistaken in her interpretation of the song, her attitude betrayed a common approach to religion in North America, where no church is supposed to think itself truer than others, and where submission in any form is considered to be degrading and demeaning. The point of Isaiah’s canticle is not that God is with one particular group of people and not another. The point is rather that God is with all people in the coming of the promised Messiah. The writings of the prophet himself make this teaching quite clear, as the interpretation of the gospels and the apostolic writings of the Christian New Testament plainly testify.
Behold My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice; or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is My name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to graven images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” (Is 42:1-9)
Jesus is the chosen servant of God. He is the one anointed with God’s Spirit. The very word “Messiah” means the Anointed One. He is the light to the nations. In Him shall all of the gentiles hope.2 For, as the Lord says through Isaiah, in a line quoted by Saint Paul, “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on My name” (Is 65:1; Rom 10:20-21).
When the Christ appears on earth, God is truly with us, all of us; not only with the Jews but with the gentiles, not only with the Orthodox Christians and Christians generally but with all people, including those who do not ask for Him and do not seek Him. All peoples and nations are called to understand this and to submit to it, not for God’s sake but for their own. It is their honor, not their humiliation. It is their dignity, not their degradation. It is their freedom, not their enslavement. It is their very life.
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light. (Mt 11:27-30)
This is the message of the Winter Pascha. God is with us on earth. He is in our very midst as the man Jesus, whose name is Emmanuel. He has revealed His unknowable, inconceivable, ineffable, invisible nature in the most tangible way: as the Child who is born for us, as the Son who is given to us. To understand this and to submit to it is man’s greatest glory and joy.
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One.
Angels with shepherds glorify Him;
The wise men journey with a star;
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a little Child!
[Taken from, The Winter Pascha by Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko]