The show Burn Notice is about a super-spy turned vigilante who helps the needy folks of Miami. Its first few seasons were fun–(which is in no way intended to advocate vigilantism)–and one of the best episodes happened in the second half of the second season. In it Michael, the super-spy, gets taken hostage in a bank robbery, which he then thwarts using his ingeniousness and office supplies.
The bank robbers had planned an elaborate and lucrative heist. The hostages probably thought they were going to be murdered like bothersome pests. Michael changed their story, and he changed it in a specific way.
He didn’t try to help them from outside of the bank, aware of but divorced from the danger they faced. He certainly didn’t try to talk them through how to help themselves. Instead he joined them and faced the same danger, so that he could protect them from it and ultimately rescue them.
If you read my last post, then you can probably see where this is headed. Burn Notice here is also the story of Christmas, specifically the part of Christmas expressed in the name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”
After we’ve heard the name translated enough times, we lose the spark in it. We start hearing it as something rather wishy-washy and humdrum. Mostly we think of it purely in terms of location: God is with us the way that my wife might stand in my general vicinity. We say it in roughly the same way that we might say, “My dog was with me on my nightly walk;” then we imagine it’s supposed to inspire in us the same sort of sentimental feelings we have about our friendly pet, except about Jesus.
It would be better to imagine that we’re trapped in a bank full of dangerous criminals, herded into a small room, and menaced at gunpoint. Do we want God to be with us in the companionable dog sense or in the vigilante super-spy sense? One of them is an interesting and fairly random bit of trivia; the other completely transforms the situation.
Immanuel completely transforms our situation, because our situation was terrible. One of the songs we sing each Christmas–O Come, O Come Emmanuel–is about this. (As an interesting aside for those who are wondering, “Emmanuel” is the Latin version of “Immanuel,” used since the song was originally in Latin. “Immanuel” is the English rendering of the Hebrew.)
It’s an unusual Christmas song because of how sorrowful it is. Even the refrain–“Rejoice! Rejoice!”–is set to a mellow aching tune. I for one am used to Christmas songs being a bit more cheerful.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a song of anticipation however. It’s imaginatively located in the despairing trap that existed before the Incarnation, a place of abundant enemies (v. 4) and quarreling friends (v. 7), a place of pervasive darkness (v.6), loneliness (v.1), ignorance (v.2), weakness (v. 3), lawlessness (v. 3), mourning (v.1), captivity (v.1), strife (v.7), and death (v.4 and 6).
In short it reminds us that we weren’t perfectly fine people looking for a friendly companion–we didn’t need someone to be “with us” in that sense–we were people in serious, unavoidable, inescapable trouble. Only with that in mind can we start to understand the promise of Immanuel, “God is with us.”
Immanuel is an insurrection, a reversal, a fierce and amazing transformation. We’re surrounded by threats, but in our midst we find someone who doesn’t have to be afraid. We’re confronted with reasons for despair, but in our midst we find someone who can restore our hope and comfort us. We can’t help ourselves, but in our midst we find someone who is powerful enough to overcome every danger.
In our midst we find our savior.
Michael the spy became a hostage and “changed the game,” to use the cliché. The Son of God became human–he joined us in the mess we’d made of the world–and he changed everything.
That’s the promise of Immanuel. That’s the story of Christmas. That’s why we rejoice.