Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
The context of the first reading is during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah, 735-715 B.C. The superpower of the day is the Empire of Assyria, which lay northeast of Palestine. With the encouragement of the Kingdom of Egypt a power to the south of the Kingdom of Judah, Syria and Israel, both north of Judah, attacked Judah to force Ahaz to join their coalition against Assyria or replace him with a king who would join their coalition. Ahaz is conflicted. Isaiah warns him against joining the coalition against Assyria, but Ahaz’s advisers urge him to join. This occasions Isaiah to present the king with an offer from the Lord that his advice must be followed. Ahaz may have already made up his mind to become a vassal state of Assyria, and answers the prophet, perhaps cynically, “I will not ask! I will not put the Lord to a test!”
This refusal sends Isaiah into a prophetic fury. He insults the king, “Listen, House of David!” (Ahaz was descended from King David who established the kingdom some three hundred years earlier.) Isaiah continues, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Taking a look at the original context and meaning: the Hebrew of Isaiah’s oracle does not have the word “virgin,” but “the young woman.” The original meaning therefore is this: a young woman in Ahaz’s harem would become pregnant (through Ahaz) with a male child. The child will be called Emmanuel, a combination of two Hebrew words, “with us” and “God.” In other words, the birth of this child will be a sign to Ahaz that God is still with the Kingdom of Judah.
Now before anyone shouts “heretic,” the Scriptures are open to a progression of meaning. It was fortunate that when the oracles of Isaiah were translated into the Greek version of the Old Testament, the translators rendered Isaiah’s “young woman” (Hebrew alma) as “virgin,” (Greek parthenos). Matthew’s “Bible” was the Greek Old Testament. When Matthew, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was led to proclaim the virginal conception of the Child in Mary’s womb, he correctly quotes the Greek version of Isaiah’s oracle to establish the revealed truth that Mary conceived without human seed. This quote we shall see in this Sunday’s gospel reading.
The Responsorial Psalm 24, served as a chant accompanying a solemn entrance into the temple sanctuary. The liturgical relationship of this Psalm to the season of Advent is in the response of the people to the Psalm verses, “Let the Lord enter. He is the king of glory.” So the entry of the Lord into the temple sanctuary receives a new meaning — the entry of the Christ, the eternal Son of God, into time in Mary’s womb, and into history.
The second reading: the opening verses of Paul’s greatest letter, the Letter to the Romans. He states his credentials: slave of Christ Jesus, apostle, one set apart for God’s Good News. The foundation of that Good News — the Old Testament Prophets — something we have just seen in an interpretation of an oracle of Isaiah 7:14 progressing to its use in today’s gospel, Matthew 1:23.
Paul mentions Jesus descent from King David, which according to Matthew’s genealogy was a legal (not biological) descent through Joseph whom the angel addresses as “son (descendant) of David.” The reason for choosing this opening of Romans for the Fourth Sunday of Advent seems to rest solely on Paul’s reference to Jesus’ Davidic descent. This ties in with Isaiah’s oracle to the “House of David” in the first reading, and the angel’s annunciation to Joseph “son of David.”
Due to our use of and devotion to Nativity scenes (cribs) in our churches and homes, when we think of the birth of Jesus we think of a stable, shepherds, sheep, angels, etc. These elements are all from Luke’s gospel. Matthew’s presentation of the birth of Jesus is quite different. He begins with the betrothal (something more serious than modern engagement) of Mary to Joseph, Mary’s astounding pregnancy preceding their cohabitation, Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary for supposed infidelity, the intervention of the angel through the not-so-well-known annunciation to Joseph, followed by his immediate obedience to the angel’s message. Joseph is described as “a righteous man,” meaning that he was always ready to follow the law of the Lord. In his obedience to the angel’s message he is depicted as a man of faith.
In the matter of divorce, we read of Joseph’s decency when he decides to divorce Mary “quietly so that she would not be exposed to shame” for her supposed infidelity. The word quietly is more accurately rendered as “lightly.” There were “light” causes justifying divorce and “heavy” causes. Heavy causes were related to sexual impropriety — especially adultery. Light causes could be anything from the wife being a bad cook or housekeeper to a man finding a more beautiful wife. A heavy cause would bring greater shame to the divorced partner. As it turns out, the angel’s intervention brought that process to a halt.
In his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew is clear that Jesus’ descent from King David is through Joseph, who is described as being “of the House of David.” But Joseph is not described as Jesus’ biological father. In contrast to Luke’s gospel, in Matthew’s gospel Joseph is instructed to name the child. Why does Matthew insist on this? The law or custom: the man who names the child claims the child as his own and becomes the child’s legal father, thus bringing Jesus into the “House of David.” Matthew notes that the child must be named Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” How does this make sense? According to popular understanding of the origin of the name Jesus (Yeshua), it is derived from the Hebrew verb meaning “to save.” Therefore, the very name given to the Child proclaims his role in the divine plan — the Savior, the Redeemer.