Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2019 – Year A
Jesus, the God with us
The son of the virgin Mary has a double name, one used by his contemporaries—Jesus, the one who frees from sin—and the one Matthew, the Evangelist gives him: Emmanuel, God with us.
The first great heresy was introduced by a brilliant dialectic of the fourth century, Apollinaris of Laodicea. He claimed that Jesus had a human body, but not a soul like ours. He feared that, by granting him a full humanity, his divinity would come out blurred. He made a big mistake. He took him away from our world, from our condition. He deprived him the second name, that of Emmanuel.
In the expression of John, “the Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14) the term flesh indicates not only the corporeality but the whole human being understood in its appearance of weakness, fragility, and limits imposed by the fact of being a creature.
In Mary, the Only Begotten of the Father is not only covered with muscles but is fully inserted in our human condition. He had feelings, emotions, and passions. He experienced the joys of affections and disappointments of betrayal. He shared our anxieties, sorrows, humiliations, ignorance, satisfaction in learning and also our fear of death. Not that he just united himself to a real body, but really became a man like us in everything except sin. For this, he is Emmanuel, God with us.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“You came among us, Lord, to remain with us forever.”
The historical context in which this oracle was uttered is well-known. In 734 B.C., the kings of Aram and Israel join forces in an attempt to free themselves from the Assyrian yoke and to involve Ahaz, reigning in Jerusalem, in their daring enterprise. He refuses, so the two decide to dethrone him, to put an end to his dynasty and to enthrone a king who will side with their projects (Is 7:1-10).
The young Ahaz—just past twenty years—is shocked and dazed. He is a descendant of David, a member of the noble family to whom an eternal kingdom was promised. Through prophet Nathan, God assured: “I will firmly establish forever the reign of David’s family. I will not withdraw my protection from him. His reign will last forever” (2 Sam 7:14-16). Therefore, he should not be afraid, but his faith in God is fragile. He makes human calculations and begins to make one mistake after another. He even makes the abominable crime of sacrificing his only son to the idols (2 Kg 16:3). Then, conscious of having a very weak army and running the risk of being overwhelmed, he asks for help from Assyria. Upon learning of the decision of the king, Isaiah intervenes.
The Assyrians dominate the international scene and will have no difficulty to protect the small kingdom of Judah. They claim to reduce it to a vassal. They will put in danger above all the faith and religious purity of God’s people.
The prophet decides to speak personally to Ahaz. He goes to meet him and his son Seariasub at the upper pool on the road to the Washerman’s field (Is 7:3). He finds him even more agitated. He is studying how to provide water for the city in view of the siege. He talks to him in the name of God. He reassures him: “What you are afraid of, will not happen. It shall not come to pass” (Is 7:8). He asks him to trust not in Assyria, but in the Lord and in His promises. The enemies that scare, shake and make him tremble as if they were a strong and relentless wind, are nothing more than a puff of smoke that rises from the charred embers. There is nothing to fear: his dynasty will continue to reign in Jerusalem for ever, as the Lord had promised.
Nothing to do! The king becomes more stubborn, convinced that the strength of the Assyrians merits more confidence than that of God.
After a few days, Isaiah goes back to find him, in his palace. We arrive at our reading.
He says: “If you do not have faith in my words, if you want a guarantee, ask for a sign” (v. 11). Ahaz is not willing to change his mind, so he does not care for any sign.
Whether he likes it or not, Isaiah gives the sign. “Behold, the virgin is with child and bears a son and calls his name Emmanuel” (v. 14). What does this mean?
Some think that Isaiah foretold, seven centuries in advance, the virginal conception of Mary, but such a sign would make no sense for Ahaz. The virgin whom Isaiah refers to is the young wife of the king. This girl—the prophet assures—will have a son whose name would be “Emmanuel” which means “God with us”. This child will succeed his father, will give continuity to the dynasty and nobody will oust him. Indeed, he will be a great king, a new David. I explained somewhat in detail this short reading because the evangelist Matthew saw the full realization of this prophecy in Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary.
How did the war Ahaz was preparing end? As Isaiah had foreseen: it was a political and religious disaster. Assyria intervened and the fumigants, the kings of Aram and Israel were soon reduced to embers. Ahaz was humiliated. He had to pay heavy taxes and the kingdom of Judah became an Assyrian colony.
The sign given by the prophet became true: the son of Ahaz was conceived and born of the young maid. He became the sign of God’s presence among his people. He was the evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness to his promises. He was called Hezekiah. The title Immanuel “God is with us” could be rightly applied to him. He was a good king, but he was not the exceptional king that Isaiah expected. For this reason, Israel starts to wait for another king, a son of David who would fully fulfill the prophecy of ‘God with us’. In today’s gospel, Matthew points him out: He is the son of the virgin Mary.
The Letter to the Romans starts with a long introduction. It follows the usual form of the letters of that time which provided a fixed pattern: the indication of the sender’s name, followed by that of the recipient’s, a greeting of good wishes (usually khairein—hello!) and a brief debut dictated by circumstances.
Paul makes this form his own and adapts it to a specific purpose. At the sender’s name, his own, he adds the qualifications that entitle him to turn to a distinguished community as that of Rome. He presents himself as an apostle, a herald of the Gospel and a servant of Jesus (v. 1).
There are three significant titles Paul assumes on himself: the first reminds the readers of the authority he directly received from Christ to found new churches among the pagans. The second is a source of pride for him. He feels honored to have been chosen by God to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection. The third—servant of the messiah, Jesus—has a derogatory sense in the Hellenistic cultural environment. Those honored were the lords, not the slaves. However, to those who are accustomed to the language of the Bible, this term recalls the great characters of the Old Testament, the servants of God: Moses, Joshua, David, and especially the Servant of the Lord spoken by the prophet Isaiah.
The person of Jesus is presented in the central part of the passage (vv. 2-6). He was born of the seed of David according to the flesh. His true identity, that of the son of God, was revealed on the day of Easter, when with a gesture of power, the Lord raised him from the dead. He is the Risen One that Paul was called to proclaim.
The concluding verse (v. 7) indicates who the recipients of the letter are, the Christians of Rome—beloved of God and called to be saints. It contains the greeting, typical of the eastern epistolary style, in which Paul adds the greeting of peace. In the Jewish language, it is equivalent to wishing every blessing of God.
“Here’s how the birth of Jesus happened” thus today’s gospel’s passage begins. Instead of talking about the birth, it tells the announcement of the virginal motherhood of his wife to Joseph. Luke, unlike Matthew, narrates the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary and only marginally mentions Joseph.
The temptation to merge the two stories, as if they were reports of two journalists, is great but dangerous. It inevitably places us before difficult questions if not impossible to give an answer, as we will see shortly.
Both Luke and Matthew refer to actual facts, although difficult to define in details. They do not write pages of news but theology. They present Jesus, after Easter and in the light of the Spirit, as the Christian communities came to know him at the end of the first century.
Let’s see how Matthew structures his story and what message he wants to give. At the time of Jesus, a marriage took place in two stages. The first consisted of a stipulated contract between the couple in front of their parents and two witnesses. After this signing, the boy and the girl were husband and wife, but did not live together. They spent a year apart during which they could not meet.
This interval allowed the two families to get to know each other and for the newlyweds to mature. In fact, they married very young, twelve or thirteen years for the girl, fifteen or sixteen for the boy. This was to be the age of Mary and Joseph.
After a year of waiting, a party would be organized. The bride would be conducted to the house of her husband and the two begin their life together.
It was during this interval that the annunciation to Mary and her pregnancy through the Holy Spirit took place. Matthew emphasizes this fact from the beginning of his story to avoid insinuating that Jesus may have been generated by the intervention of a man.
The spirit, in this story, does not represent the male element. Ruah (spirit in Hebrew is female) indicates a strength, a divine breath of the Creator. “When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and the face of the earth is renewed,” says the Psalmist (Ps 104:30). He probably thinks of the spirit of God that hovered over the waters at the beginning of the world (Gn 1:2).
The virginal conception that is even explicitly mentioned by Luke (Lk 1:26-39) is not intended to emphasize the moral superiority of Mary nor, still less, does it constitute a depreciation of sexuality. It is introduced to reveal a fundamental truth for the believer: Jesus is not only a man; he is from above and is the same Lord who has taken on human form. To help us understand this truth, Matthew and Luke harmoniously agree that God resorted to a creative act.
What happened next is not easy to establish and raises several questions. It seems incredible that Joseph, despite his righteousness, thought of taking drastic action against Mary, without even consulting her. How could he suspect that she had been unfaithful to him? In what sense was Joseph just? Was it because he wanted to separate himself from Mary? There was no law obliging divorce from an unfaithful wife. It would not have been a nice gesture on the part of Joseph even if it was done in secret. Why didn’t Mary say anything to Joseph about the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement? Or, if she had told him, why didn’t Joseph believe her?
Some say that Mary must have told Joseph that the child she was expecting was the Son of God. She had no reason to keep this secret from him and he had a right to know. Joseph’s doubt would then be not about the fidelity or infidelity of his spouse, but about his role in the situation. How could he give a name to a son who was not his? Would it not be interfering with God’s plan? Not knowing what to do, he decided to wait for God to make His will known.
While he was pondering these things, the Lord revealed His plan and the mission to which He called Joseph. He was to give Mary’s son the name, Jesus, thus becoming rightfully a member of his family. He would become a descendant of David according to the flesh, as St. Paul said in the second reading.
This explanation is interesting and contains elements certainly acceptable. For example, the fact that Joseph is called just because he had decided to step aside so as not to interpose obstacles to God’s plan that he could not understand. However, it is limited to be an assumption to which the Gospel text gives only a fragile foundation.
It is better not to grope for answers in the gospel to questions we legitimately ask ourselves. Because Matthew was not interested in satisfying our curiosity. All he wanted us to understand was this: the son of Mary is the promised heir to the throne of David announced by the prophets.
The conclusion of the story is solemn. The whole passage seems to have been written to prove the fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son who will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us (vv. 22-23).
We have already seen the literal meaning of this prophecy: the announcement of the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah. He was truly an Emmanuel, i.e. a sign that God protected his people and the dynasty of David, but did not answer all the expectations that had been placed in him. He did not even realize the promises of happiness, prosperity and peace described by Isaiah. He was not a wonderful counselor, an invincible warrior, an everlasting father, a prince of peace… (Is 9:5-6).
Here is what Matthew means: Jesus is the one who has fulfilled these prophecies. He is the son of the virgin announced by the prophet. He is really the Emmanuel, God with us. He will be given an everlasting kingdom, and he will fulfill all the hopes of Israel.
We are at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. The theme of Emmanuel also returns at the end of the book. In the last chapter it is said that, after the resurrection, Jesus manifested himself to the disciples on the Mount of Galilee. He sent them into the whole world to make disciples of all nations. Behold, I am with you (… Here I am the Emmanuel) always even to the end of this world (Mt 28:20). The reference to ‘God with us’ opens and closes all the work of Matthew because—the evangelist tells us—in Jesus, God has placed Himself, and remains always at man’s side.
This conclusion of the song returns to the theme of the virgin. We explained the meaning of the virginal conception of Mary. We want to recall other biblical implications of this term.
For us, ‘virgin’ means admirable, worthy of esteem. In the Bible, however, it has a different meaning. The virginity of a woman was appreciated before the wedding, but one who remained a virgin throughout her life showed only the inability to attract upon herself the look of a man. A married woman who had children is worthy of praise. The virgin was considered a tree without fruits, deserving pity (Is 56:3-6).
This term is often used figuratively in the Bible to indicate a despicable condition. The expression virgin Zion does not mean: pure, immaculate, spotless, but poor, Jerusalem devoid of life (Jer 31:4; 14:13). The land of Israel destroyed by the Assyrians is compared by Amos to a virgin who could not fulfill her dream of being a mother. “Virgin Israel is fallen, never to rise again! With none to help her up, abandoned, she lies upon her own land.” (Am 5:2). Even the bloody Babylon is cursed by the prophet: “You will be reduced to dust, O virgin Babylon” (Is 47:1).
And Mary? She speaks of herself as if she were the “virgin Zion” despised and worthless (He looked upon his servant in her lowliness) and recognizes that everything that happened to her is the work of the “Powerful” who has done great things in her (Lk 1:48-49). The Virgin Mary is the proof of the greatness and power of God, who alone is able to bring life to the barren womb.
When we celebrate the virginity of Mary, we rejoice because we verify in her what the Lord can do with virgins, with those who have no value, with those who offer him only one’s poverty and simplicity. From Mary, the Lord has drawn a masterpiece. An artist like him can do only masterpieces, regardless of the smallness and poverty of the material at his disposal. Every person is destined to become a masterpiece.
In this time of Advent, the Virgin Mary invites us to contemplate what the Lord has done for her and believe in the victory of life even where only signs of death are seen.
The term virgin in the Bible also assumes a more metaphorical meaning: the person who loves with an undivided heart. The unfaithfulness of Israel is likened to prostitution (Jer 5:7). Its contamination with idols is considered adultery, a division of the heart between the Lord, the one husband, and the idols of the nations, her lovers (Hos 2).
The virginity is the symbol of total love for the Lord. It is in this sense that Paul uses the term when he writes to the Corinthians: “I share the jealousy of God for you, for I have promised you in marriage to Christ, as the only spouse, to present you to Him as a pure virgin” (2 Cor 11:2).
Mary has certainly realized to perfection even this ideal of virginity. For every Christian, she is the supreme model of total and undivided love to God.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.