Fourth Sunday of Advent A
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Matt 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Advent 4 takes us back to the conception of Jesus. The story in Matt 1:18-24 (annunciation to Joseph) corresponds to Luke 1:26-38 (annunciation to Mary). The excerpt omits, for liturgical reasons, the next verse, which reads “but [he] had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matt 1:25) This is an accurate, if slightly awkward, translation.
Kind of writing
(i) Communication in a dream: the clear prototypes are Jacob (and his famous ladder) and Joseph (with the coat of many colours). Otherwise, the Bible is hesitant, not to say suspicious, of divination by dreams.
(ii) Annunciation-type story: these stories show the following pattern. (1) Appearance of an angel; (2) fear and/or prostration; (3) message; (4) objection; (5) sign. OT: Ishmael Gen 16:7-12, Isaac Gen 17:1-21; 18:1-12; Samson Jdg 13:3-21. NT: John the Baptist Lk 1:11-20; Jesus Lk 1:26-38. Our version in Matt is missing one element, the sign: the angel comes in a dream and there is a message. Implied are (a) fear—“Do not be afraid” and (b) an objection—Joseph wants a divorce and the angel somehow knows this.
(iii) Fulfilment of prophecy: fives times in chapters 1-2, Matthew says the events described fulfilled something from the Hebrew Bible. The purpose is to underline continuity—i.e. God’s fidelity, even in the unexpected context of a Jewish-Christian community of faith.
Old Testament background
(i) Joseph: the name Joseph reminds the aware bible reader of another Joseph in the book of Genesis. That Joseph was a dreamer, threatened by his brothers, who went down to Egypt. Because of his position, Egypt became a place of refuge for his family. The character of our Joseph and the narrative surrounding him all come from Genesis 37-50.
(ii) Divorce was allowed by inference in Deut 24:1-4, although no legislation formally permits it. The rabbis discussed “warmly” the conditions under which a man might divorce his wife.
(iii) Son of David: the relationship with David immediately calls to mind the guarantee and promise to the house of David made by the prophet Nathan in 2 Sam 7 and the prayer version of it in Psalm 89. David was the anointed shepherd king of Israel — language significant in Matthew. In the centuries before Jesus’ birth, people’s hopes focused on a restoration of the kingdom of David, as a mark of God’s continued faithfulness to his people.
(iv) Jesus is the Greek for Joshua, the name of Moses’ successor, who actually led the people into the promised land. The name comes Hebrew/Aramaic and means “YHWH is salvation” or “YHWH saves/has saved.” Messiah or Christ is not found in the Hebrew Bible pointing to an expected end-time agent of God’s salvation. That language and expectation developed in the last two centuries before the birth of Jesus.
(v) The promise in Isaiah 7:14 is read as a messianic prophecy. In its original context, this text promised a successor to King Ahaz, born in the normal way. The Hebrew says ‘alma, which could be a young woman and/or a virgin. The early Greek version of the OT (the Septuagint) used the word “virgin”, taken up here by Matthew because it fits with his account of Jesus’ conception.
New Testament foreground
(i) Matthew is the only Gospel to give the meaning of the name Jesus. Intriguingly, he increases the occurrence of the name in the Passion Narrative from 10 to 17, perhaps because he wants us to hear the etymology and its meaning as we hear the story of Jesus’ death for us.
(ii) Emmanuel (lit. = God with us): as is well-known, the gospel’s first mention of Jesus includes this name and this Gospel closes with a final evocation: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4–7)
In a discrete way, using narrative, Matthew achieves a tremendous theology of the child to be born: Son of David, the new Joshua, Saviour, God-with-us—all brought by the Holy Spirit and divine intervention.
Verse 18 The virginal conception of Jesus is a tradition which antedates both Matthew and Luke, as they both contain it independently. A conception outside wedlock serves to make that lack of human causality apparent. The Holy Spirit as the agent is found also in Luke.
Verse 19 In this way, the good character of Joseph is affirmed.
Verse 20 Annunciation type story details. “Son of David”—legal paternity is traced to the husband. “Do not be afraid” is one of the most common expressions across the whole Bible. Anyone who is anyone in the biblical narrative needs and receives this reassurance. The fear intended is not emotional fright but, so to speak, ontological dread before the mystery of God.
Verse 21 Saving people from the sins is part of Matthew’s theology of the cross. That is why in increases the occurrence of the name Jesus in his Passion Narrative.
Verse 22 As elsewhere, a citation for proof of veracity and continuity.
Verse 23 Virginity (essential before marriage but a catastrophe if life-long) is a symbol of unrealised potential—exactly that period of longing after disappropriation and disappointment envisaged in the genealogy in Matthew as the setting for coming of the Messiah.
Verse 24 Joseph is always obedient to his dreams—see 2:13 and 2:19.
Pointers for prayer
As we move into prayer on the passage, we move from consideration of the mystery of how “God with us” was revealed to the world in the person of Jesus two thousand years ago, to a reflection on how we become aware of “God with us” now in our daily lives.
1. It took some time for Joseph to accept the fact that in Mary there truly was Emmanuel—God with us. God is with us now, but at times we struggle to perceive God’s presence. Where have you unexpectedly discovered the presence of “God with you”? Recall those experiences and give thanks.
2. Joseph was confused and uncertain about what he should do. It was difficult for him to discern what his next step should be. Perhaps you have also had to make difficult journeys on the way to some decisions or commitments. Recall that journey and the moments when it became clear to you what was being asked of you. Give thanks for the angels who helped you along the way.
3. Mary bore Jesus within her, unseen to all, and unacknowledged by most. In Joseph she found one who believed in the treasure that she bore. We can be bearers of Jesus to others, and they to us. When have you been a bearer of Jesus to another? Who has been that to you?
4. The experience of having a gift that others do not see or recognise can be painful and isolating. Then someone comes, like Joseph to Mary, who gets to believe in what we have to offer. Has that happened to you? What was it like?
Eternal God, in the psalms of David, in the words of the prophets, in the dream of Joseph, your promise is spoken. At last, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, your Word takes flesh.
Teach us to welcome Jesus, the promised Emmanuel, and to preach the good news of his coming that every age may know him as the source of redemption and grace.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
In a culture where God is, apparently, absent, it may sound strange to hear words such as “Do not be afraid” and “God is with us.” Such assurances are at the heart our biblical faith from start to finish. Everyone who is anyone in the Bible is told not to be afraid. And the assurance “I will be with you” is found throughout starting with the very name of God in Ex 3:14, I am who I am. The God—in whom we live and move and have our being—is there all along, whether we are aware of it or not. Faith is the moment of discovery and recognition.
You are with us always: you are with us in creation in all its splendour, in our fellow human beings in all their generosity, you are with us in the quiet where we are alone with you. Amen.