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4th Sunday of Advent

17 December 2019

Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-20; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-end


MATTHEW tells us that the Blessed Virgin Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. While his account is far sparer than Luke’s, the two narratives cast light on each other. Matthew’s account reveals the potential cost of Mary’s “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). In first-century Palestine, she would have faced penury and shame if Joseph had carried out his plan to “dismiss her quietly”.

Joseph’s encounter with an angel leads him to embrace his own sacrificial vocation. God is entrusting his Son to Joseph’s care and protection. This means that Joseph will not be a father in the sense that he would have envisaged when he became engaged to Mary. He is to bring up a child who has been fathered by another — and Jesus’s heavenly Father will be central to his consciousness from childhood (Luke 2.41-52).

Benedict XVI writes that there is a “deep and indissoluble correspondence” between Jesus’s divinity and his virginal birth. While Joseph’s genealogy indicates his “messianic dignity”, the nature of his birth points to Christ’s unique status as fully God and fully man, with an utterly unique relationship to his Father in heaven (Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian belief).

The angel refers to the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14. While Matthew quotes from the Septuagint version, in which “young woman” is rendered “virgin”, the original Hebrew (almah) does not always have that implication. In principle, the prophecy could have been fulfilled by a woman who was not a virgin. It is the testimony of the Gospels, and the logic of Christology, which ground the Church’s confession of Jesus as “born of the Virgin Mary”.

There is no obvious contemporary fulfilment of Isaiah 7. As Benedict XVI explains, “the passage about the virgin who gives birth to Emmanuel — like the great Suffering Servant song in Isaiah 53 — is a word in waiting. There is nothing in its own historical context to correspond to it.” Biblical scholars have searched “meticulously” for a fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah’s own times, to no avail. Its full meaning becomes clear only as the divine plan of redemption unfolds (Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives).

As they respond to their angelic messengers, Joseph and Mary show a striking combination of humility and courage, embracing the sacrifice involved in each of their vocations. We saw this same combination in the ministry of John the Baptist — but it is, of course, Christ who most completely embodies these virtues. Precisely because he is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, we can truly say that he chose to be born in the humility of Bethlehem. Christ’s kenosis provides the pattern — and, indeed, the grace — for that of his mother and foster-father (cf. Philippians 2.5-8).

This kenosis has dramatic implications for our understanding of power and authority. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster explains, recent scholarship has brought to light how much imperial language is employed throughout Paul’s letters, “with very different effect than when employed by the empire”. In our epistle, Paul is “writing to the followers of Jesus Christ in the city that is the seat of the empire”. He chooses the word euangelion (“gospel”), which was already used in the contexts of military victory and dynastic succession, to describe Jesus’s birth and his paschal triumph. Likewise, “Son of God” — a title that Romans usually heard ascribed to their emperor — is here applied to one of his crucified subjects (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Romans).

For Paul’s first readers, as for Joseph and Mary, the call to sacrificial obedience is set within a context of glad tidings. Joseph is told that the child he is to care for “will save his people from their sins”. Paul, likewise, begins his epistle with the tidings of salvation: of Jesus, the Crucified One, who is “declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” — a triumph which breaks the hold of sin and death on the human race.

These glad tidings are the essential foundation for the sacrificial obedience of every Christian. For this reason, this Sunday’s post-communion prayer asks that we, like Mary, might be filled with God’s grace, “that in all things we may embrace your holy will and with her rejoice in your salvation”.

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