By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14; Response: Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7; Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24
The first reading takes us back to the 8th century B.C., to the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Ahaz (735-715 B.C.). The political situation: the superpower of the day is the Empire of Assyria, northeast of Jerusalem and Judea. Between Assyria and Judea lay the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria in the north. To the south of Judea lay the Kingdom of Egypt — a rival to Assyria. With encouragement from Egypt, Syria and Israel attacked Judah to force King Ahaz to join with them in a coalition with Egypt against Assyria – or to replace Ahaz with a king who would join them. Ahaz is conflicted. Isaiah warns him against joining the coalition, but Ahaz’s advisers urge him to join. Isaiah presents the king with a word from the Lord to resist the coalition. The Lord himself spoke to Ahaz, probably through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign (proof) from the Lord, high as heaven or deep as Sheol (place of the dead).” Ahaz had already made up his mind to join the coalition, and replied, “I will not tempt the Lord!”
Isaiah is furious; furious prophets can be dangerous. He roars, “Listen, House of David!” (Ahaz was a descendant of King David who established the Kingdom of Judah about 300 years earlier.) Isaiah continues, “Not only are people weary of you, but must you even make my God sick of you?” A famous passage follows: “The Lord will indeed give you a sign. A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and name him Emmanuel.” The context in which these words were spoken differs from what Christianity developed out of these words. The original meaning: a young woman in Ahaz’s harem would conceive a male child (through Ahaz). Naming the child Emmanuel will be a sign that the Lord God is indeed still with the Kingdom of Judah. Why? Because the name Emmanuel means “God with us.”
The Scriptures are open to a progression of the meaning. When the oracles of Isaiah were translated into the Greek version of the Old Testament, the translators rendered the Hebrew word almah (young woman) by the Greek word parthenos (virgin). Matthew’s Old Testament was this Greek version. When, therefore, Matthew was led by the Holy Spirit to proclaim Mary’s virginal conception and birth of Jesus, he quoted the Greek version of Isaiah, “. . . a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We know that neither Mary nor Joseph were told to name the child “Emmanuel,” but Joseph was told to name him Jesus. Matthew retains this part of the oracle to proclaim the divinity of Jesus, “With us — God,” as we shall see and hear in today’s gospel reading.
Psalm 24 served as a chant accompanying a solemn entrance into the temple sanctuary. After praising the Lord, the psalm lists the qualifications of one who is worthy to enter the temple, “to stand in the holy place.” Sinless hands, a clean heart, a heart not set on vanities.
The second reading begins the Letter to the Romans. First, Paul’s credentials – “a slave of Jesus Christ, an apostle set apart for the Good News of God about his Son.” The reading ties in with the first reading, noting that this Good News was promised through the prophets, (according to Christian interpretation, as explained in the comments above on the reading from Isaiah). Paul emphasizes Jesus’ descent from King David “according to the flesh.” Difficult since Matthew and Luke, in their genealogies of Jesus, explain the descent from David through St Joseph, Jesus’ legal, though not biological, father. Paul insists in 2 Tim 2:8, “Jesus Christ … descended from David.”
Today’s gospel is Matthew’s first story of the birth of Jesus, as he announces, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” The Epiphany will be the second one. Mary and Joseph are mentioned together as “betrothed.” Betrothal was a kind of engagement, but with greater consequences. Then the painful part, at least for Joseph. “Before they lived together (and what that implies), she was found with child through the Holy Spirit,” something still unknown to a no-doubt shocked groom. Joseph is complimented as a righteous man, one who lives according to God’s will. He was also a decent and sensitive man, not wanting to harm Mary’s reputation by revealing this premarital pregnancy, so he decided to divorce Mary quietly. A better translation would be leniently. There were recognized grounds for divorce from different schools of thought – light causes and heavy causes. On the conservative or heavy side: sexual impropriety, especially adultery. On the progressive, or lenient side, the light causes were many, among them the wife being a poor housekeeper or cook, a man finding a more beautiful woman. Light indeed!
Like the patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament, so our own St. Joseph is rescued through dreams – four of them in Matthew’s first two chapters. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, addressing him with the royal title, “Son (descendant) of David.” Thus, Matthew has established Joseph’s royalty. This is important because, according to Matthew’s theology, Jesus gets his royal descent through Joseph. The angel assures Joseph it was ok to take Mary home as his wife. The child in Mary’s womb has been conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a new creation, like the creation in Genesis 1:3, where life (creation) began as the “Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” The angel continues, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus.” Why, in the theology of Matthew, is Joseph, who did not do the work, commanded to name the child? The naming of a child by the father or the supposed father established a legal bond between the named and the one who names him. He became his legal father. Thus, Matthew introduces Joseph, son of David, as the legal father of Jesus, who passes on his legally royal character to Jesus, Son of David. Matthew’s interjection of the quote from Isaiah 7:14 is explained in the comments above on the first reading. Joseph obediently took his wife Mary into his home.