The sign that God is among us Is 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24 My nephew and his wife are expecting a child at the end of February. Please God, this will be their first child to be born. Several months ago, they had suffered through a miscarriage, so this baby is awaited with intense joy and hope. Like most parents-to-be these days, they have received periodic scans to monitor the baby’s progress. A while ago they reported that the doctor had told them the baby was about the size of a “chicken nugget.” Somehow that down-home comparison startled me into realizing how fragile and miraculous the whole process of giving birth is. A tiny bit of life, yet with all the complex components of the human body and spirit, is already in place and advancing rapidly. (Now that same poetic doctor tells them the baby is about the size of can of beer.) All of this triggered Advent thoughts for me, especially in view of the readings for this fourth and final Sunday of Advent. In one of the most famous passages from the prophet Isaiah, King Ahaz is warned not to “weary” God but, instead, to be alert to the sign that God will give to assure Israel of its future: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel.” Of course, the fame of this prediction is its repetition in Matthew’s account of the conception of Jesus that we hear this Sunday. The “angel of the Lord” appears to Joseph and explains Mary’s startling pregnancy by quoting this same passage. No pregnancy — even in the best of circumstances — is without its possible complications and that is the case in Matthew’s account of the conception of Jesus. Unlike Luke’s enticing story that has a wondrous cast of characters — Mary and Joseph, of course, but also the shepherds, choirs of angels and the welcoming prophets Anna and Simeon — Matthew’s account is much more sober, and threat is near at hand. We see things through the anxious eyes of Joseph. He is startled and deeply saddened when he discovers that his betrothed is already pregnant and so he plans to divorce her. But the angel informs him that this is the work of God’s Spirit. Later in the story we will learn of Herod’s murderous threats that will drive Joseph and his small family to flee their home and seek refuge in Egypt. Matthew’s account reminds us how fragile all of this was and yet God’s purpose is accomplished. The child will grow in the womb of his mother. Mary will give birth to her son. And Joseph, together with Mary and their child, will escape a despot’s threats and ultimately their son will begin his mission in Galilee. Joseph was instructed that this unborn child is to be named “Jesus” (in Hebrew, “God’s salvation”) “because he will save his people from their sins,” and “Emmanuel” (Hebrew for “God is with us”) because his very being will bring the divine presence into our midst. The early church Fathers used the term “divine condescension” to try to describe the incredible reality of the Incarnation. Today the term condescension implies arrogance, someone superior stooping to deal with an inferior. But the early theologians did not use the term that way. They viewed God’s presence among us as a fragile bundle of life in Mary’s womb and the vulnerable baby in the care of Joseph and Mary as a startling sign of God’s infinite mercy and love for us. Isaiah’s sign that a young woman bearing in her body the beginning of a human life assuring King Ahaz that God would not abandon Israel, now, in the pregnant Mary, becomes a sign that in the person of Jesus God’s astounding love for all the world would be proven. Part of the spirit of Advent is to retrieve our sense of wonder at all of this. It is salutary from time to time to realize the infinitely complex, fragile and absolutely astounding reality of how a human being develops in a mother’s womb. Astounding, too, our readings for this Advent Sunday tell us, is the reality of God’s infinite love for us.