The most popular tattoo is a rose. Dragons, skulls or a girlfriend’s name are popular, too. A common religious tattoo is the word Immanuel/Emmanuel.
Sometimes this body art is written in Hebrew letters, since the first occurrence of the word (actually a phrase) was in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew, Immanuel means God is with us.
It makes a good tattoo.
I want to acknowledge that some Christians and many Jews resist tattooing for biblical reasons (see Leviticus 19:28). Tattooing also recalls, for some, the utter horror of the HaShoah, or Jewish holocaust. For the sake of this essay, I will observe that a tattoo reading “God is With Us” is affirming of the divine goodness and not of human destructiveness.
Opinion is split on whether it’s OK to ask strangers about their tattoos. Getting inked is a personal choice, and not everyone wants to get all that personal with you. Those of us who are too shy or too polite to ask can only imagine why someone would have the Hebrew Immanuel, or the English transliteration, Emmanuel, printed on their arm, leg, shoulder or ankle.
I imagine a person settling into the chair at the tattoo parlor. A piece of tender flesh, a part of the person’s own precious body, is given to the artist’s needle. The pain is a little bit sweet, perhaps, because the choice to get tattooed is a profound act of personal freedom. The choice is made for one’s skin to become a canvas. And what is being expressed? It’s the affirmation, God is with us.
Still imagining, I guess that deciding to get a tat saying Immanuel/Emmanuel suggests a high view of God. We want God to be with us, as long as we can trust that God to be kind, forgiving and generous with blessings. This is the understanding of God for which we can willingly go at least skin deep.
The biblical God begins to get under our skin when we think of divine judgment and justice. We want to believe that God is always fair. Harsh judgment is reserved for true evil, but justice is given to the poor, the oppressed, the mis-used and the needy. The powerful felt presence of such a God is something to celebrate.
Tattooing and the artistic, self-expressive piercing of tender skin with the name God is with us is a deeply genuine, deeply personal proclamation of the goodness of God. Such an Immanuel/Emmanuel is welcome. We want to be as close as possible to such goodness.
This is what Christmas was (once upon a time) all about for Christians. Nowadays, Christmas has become about many things, including getting, spending, eating, decorating and winding up exhausted. But once, Christmas was only about Immanuel.
If God is with us, it means we’re never alone. It means that at least some of the isolation we feel is a mirage. We have a partner, and we belong together. God is with us. It means that our discouragement with other relationships has a pause button and an opportunity to rewind, because God has made us for connection and belonging. God is “with” us, which means that we were made with an enormous capacity to be “with” each other. We are made to be generous and kind. We are made to be fair, and to uphold justice for those who are in need. Living in this way is meant to be a profoundly personal choice, even: an expression of individual freedom.
Whether or not it gets spoken out loud, a fundamental question arises for anybody getting tattooed. They want to know: Will this hurt? It probably will. Self-expression hurts. Lots of worthwhile things hurt, or are demanding. The pain is the price we pay for commitment.
The Christmas declaration of Immanuel, God with us, requires our commitment. We can do more than read about hunger, think about poverty or complain about injustice. We can meet one another, and take time to be “with” one another. Who is isolated and alone? Who is afraid? Who has been left out? Who is being forgotten? How will you go to them?
I’ve seen it on Christmas cards, and I’ve read in Charles Dickens, the wistful comment, “Christmas comes but once a year.” So bid farewell to the annual challenge of getting, giving and hosting. But hold on to the pure celebration: We are not alone. We have a divine example of entering one another’s lives for good, for mutual support, for kindness and friendship, and for devoted belonging.
It was in a short story that Charles Dickens wrote: “Christmas comes but once a year, which is unhappily too true, for when it begins to stay with us the whole year ‘round we shall make this earth a very different place.”
– Matthew Covington is senior pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green.