With Us

I’ve been writing the word “Emmanuel” over and over, trying to get it absolutely perfect. (I struggle with uppercase cursive Es.)

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That’s the accumulation of a couple of afternoons, but it wasn’t just those couple of afternoons—it was years. There have been vaguely serial-killer-y “Emmanuel” Post-Its and paper scraps all over the place in my life, in this house and the apartments before it, in school notebooks and journal pages and sometimes, when I had a really good pen, scrawled up and down my arm.

Emmanuel means “God with us.” (I’m pretty sure most people know this! But just in case.) But what does that mean?

I’ve been sitting on a draft of this post for weeks, thinking of what I wanted to say about that question. I thought I might have a 4-post Advent series in me. I do not. I don’t even have a conclusion for this one post or any logical transitions between messy paragraphs, just to give you advance warning.

God with us. It’s my favorite thing about my faith. It’s the thing I always believe, always hold in my heart, no matter how upset or disenchanted or confused I get about other parts of Christianity or the church or my life or my relationships, including my relationship with God. God with us. It means so much to me. It’s why I believe, always, why I’m a Christian, because it’s the thing I feel the most. But also I don’t know what it means to me. Not that it means just one thing. Sometimes it means the magic of angels singing and the word become flesh. Sometimes it means the mess of Mary’s fear and courage and her having to give birth in a barn (or a cave?), how we sing about it being silent and sweet but it must have been cold and scary and so hard.

Recently I’ve been thinking—you could call it meditating, maybe, or fixating—about Jesus having a human heart. About how much human love he had for the people around him, his parents and his friends, the disciples, the not-disciples who also traveled with him. His best friends falling asleep in the garden, not able to stay awake, such a simple thing he asked them. I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ heart broken not in the big ways, by Judas and the guards and the Bad Guys of the story, but by the people he loved the most. And still loved them. (And was still loved by them.) There are lots of details about what it means for God to have been One of Us that I don’t think we (I?) talk about enough.

Advent is about waiting in the dark. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. I say sometimes that I have a winter heart, mostly half-joking to complain about living in a place where it never snows. But I do mean it, and maybe what I mean is that I have an Advent heart. Seeing the dark, but waiting for—expecting—a light. Expecting God to be with me. Not always sure what that looks like. Not always trusting myself to identify it. But sometimes, there’s no mistaking it: last night, sitting on some stairs in my church sanctuary, with my husband playing piano and one of my favorite people sitting a few yards away, working out a three-part harmony to a song I love after everyone else had left. An “emmanuel” song, actually. That stirring in me that can’t be anything else. It’s not always so on the nose. I don’t mind when it is.

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I’ve been thinking about getting this tattoo for more than 5 years. It came out beautifully. My mom didn’t cry when she saw it. (My mom said something lovely about wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.) It’s faded some in the healing process and looks more imperfect now, more like it looked when I actually wrote it, no matter how hard I tried. 

This month with my spiritual director, I talked through my reasons for choosing this word, this symbol, in my own handwriting, as possibly the only thing I will ever have permanently written on my body. I talked about what it means to me. I started talking thinking that it was the thing I’m most certain of; by the time I was done, she said, “I love that you put the thing you most struggle with on your arm.” I think they both can be true.

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