Sunday of Week 4 of Advent (Year A)

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

We are now on the eve of the birth of Jesus.  In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us how this came about.  His account is totally different from that of Luke.  The only thing in common with both accounts are the central ideas that:

– Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and

– Joseph and Mary are the parents of Jesus.

In both accounts there is an angelic appearance: in one case to Mary and in the other to Joseph.  Mary is told – in Luke’s gospel – that she is to bear a son.  When she says that she is still a virgin, she is told that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and her child will be the Son of God.  In Joseph’s case, he is told – in Matthew’s gospel – not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife because the child with whom she is pregnant is from the Spirit of God.  The stories are different but the central message is the same.  Mary is the mother of the Child, but Joseph is not the father.

Jewish weddings
Jewish weddings involved three stages. First, there was the engagement.  This was often prearranged by the parents or a matchmaker while the couple were still young children.  Marriages were primarily seen as the union of families and the continuing of the family line.  They were not primarily unions of love, as we expect today.  Of course, in the course of time husband and wife could become deeply bonded by a genuine love and caring for each other.  But it was procreation, especially the bearing of sons, that was the first priority.  So we see in Old Testament times how cursed women felt who could not bear sons for their husband and his family.

Love might or might not come later – it was secondary.  And it was only relatively recently that the Catholic Church itself put the two ends of marriage – love and procreation – as equally important.  It took quite a while in the Church for the idea that a deep Christian love could be expressed through sexual relations, that it involved a deep mutual giving of one’s whole self to the spouse and that it was not just a regrettable but unavoidable means to procreate.

Joseph’s dilemma
Later came the betrothal.  This was a legally binding relationship lasting for one year.  During this period the couple lived apart and had no sexual relations.  If either party did not want at this stage to go through with the marriage, there had to be a divorce.  And the penalty for having sexual relations with a betrothed virgin was stoning to death for both.  The third stage was the marriage itself.

We can see then Joseph’s serious dilemma, not to mention his feeling of shock, when he found that his betrothed was already pregnant and not by him.  It seemed an open and shut case of adultery.

And imagine the feelings of Mary herself in this position!  How was she to explain that she was pregnant by the power of God?  Who would believe a story like that?  If Joseph felt outraged and betrayed, one would understand.  Most men would have planned vengeance at such an insult to their manliness and the possibility of becoming the laughing stock of the other men in the village.

But Joseph was not an ordinary person.  He was a “righteous” man.  And he must have seen Mary as more than an ordinary person too.  He did not want to expose her openly.  To do so would have made her liable to the severest punishment.  But, at the very least, the Mosaic law required a man to divorce his wife under such circumstances.  This was Joseph’s duty and he was going to observe it.

But, compassion for his bride (extraordinary in the circumstances and in that culture) led him to want to break off the engagement quietly that is, before a minimum of two witnesses and without pressing charges.

The angel’s message
Just then the angel appears to him telling  him to go through with the marriage.  The child has been conceived by the power of God’s Spirit.  No other man is involved.  The son is to be called ‘Jesus’, which means ‘Saviour’, because his mission is to save his people from their estrangement with God.

As a descendant of David, Joseph will become the legal father of Jesus the Messiah.  And Jesus will be called later in the Gospel, “Son of David”.  As Paul puts it in the Second Reading today: he, Paul, is preaching the gospel:

concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In many ways, Joseph is a reflection of Joseph in the Hebrew Old Testament, the son of Jacob who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.  He was also a righteous man, influenced by dreams and forced into exile in Egypt.

Fulfilment of scripture
Eleven times altogether in his gospel, Matthew indicates how events in the life of Jesus are fulfilments of Old Testament promises.  Here he quotes the prophet Isaiah (using the Greek Septuagint text): “Look, the virgin [Greek parthenos; Hebrew alma, young girl of marriageable age] shall conceive and bear a son.”

The child will be called Emmanuel, which Matthew explains as meaning “God with us”.  Jesus will be the very presence of God the Father in our world.  As John says in his Prologue: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (1:14).  God is with us and is one of us.  And this presence does not end with the Resurrection.

Before Jesus leaves his disciples at the Ascension, his last words in Matthew’s Gospel are: “I am with you always – to the very end of time” (28:20).  Right down to the present, Jesus continues to be Emmanuel.  And that is why we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus 2,000 years on.  Through his Body, the Church – the Christian community – Jesus continues to be visibly present in word and action.  This Eucharist is our sacramental celebration of that presence, a presence in every single one of us here.

The effectiveness of that presence depends on our conscious union with Jesus and with the vision of his Gospel lived out in our daily lives.  Let Jesus be really re-born in each one of us this Christmas.

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