A Reflection on the Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2022
Reading 1 Is 7:10-14
Responsorial Psalm Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Reading 2 Rom 1:1-7
Gospel Mt 1:18-24
Our first reading this week comes from chapter 7 of Isaiah, and the interpretations and commentaries on this passage seem to have no end. But we need to understand the context.
But before I deal with the context, I would like to reiterate a point regarding the confusion that arises from using the names “Israel” and “Judah.” In reading the Old Testament, we often tend to think of the Jewish people as forming one nation known as Israel. But in the mid-10th century B.C., after the death of Solomon, King David’s son, that nation split into two nations; Israel in the north and Judah in the south (see 1st Kings for more information on that split). From that point on, they were two separate nations. They were never again reunited as one nation before both ceased to exist, with the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 B.C.
Now to the context of our first reading: Isaiah was called to the prophetic office “in the year that Uzziah died” (Is 6:1), which would be in the year 742 B.C. The kingdom of Assyria was growing in power and influence and was a threat to every neighboring nation. The kings of Syria (at this time known as Aram) and Israel conspired together against Judah to replace King Ahaz of Judah with a puppet king and, thereby, force Judah into a coalition with Aram and Israel against the advancing onslaught of Assyria. Ahaz, king of Judah, did not want to join the coalition and would eventually appeal to Assyria for protection from Aram and Israel. The date of this passage has to be prior to 722 B.C., the year that Israel was overthrown by Assyria, so the best guess is about 735 B.C.
In our passage from Isaiah this Sunday, God instructed Isaiah to appeal to Ahaz to hold firm in faith and not turn to Assyria for help, as Isaiah assured Ahaz that the coalition of Israel and Aram would fail. (Significantly, Isaiah was instructed to take his son, Shear-jashub, with him on this mission and, in Hebrew, Shear-jashub means: “a remnant will return.” This can certainly be taken as a prophetic reference to what will become known as “the purified remnant of Israel,” the remnant that will eventually be freed from the Babylonian Captivity around 548 B.C. and will return to Judah and Jerusalem.) Ahaz refused to listen to Isaiah, even when given the opportunity to seek a sign from God confirming that Isaiah was speaking the truth. Ahaz refused to seek a sign, but one was given without his asking, and it is this sign that has prompted endless interpretation and commentary: “The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” In Hebrew, “Immanuel” means “God with us.”
Our reading this week doesn’t go quite far enough to shed a little more light on this prophecy. The next verse (7:15) tells us that before this child was mature enough to reject the bad and choose the good, Aram and Israel would no longer be a threat to Judah. That indicates a relatively short period of time, less than a generation, and within that generation, this prophecy came true as both Israel and Aram were overrun by Assyria.
So who is this child, and what is his significance? Christianity, of course, has always equated “the virgin” with the Virgin Mary and the child with Christ, a prophecy that would be fulfilled some 700 years later. Jewish scholars, of course, don’t see it the same way. One of their interpretations was that “the virgin” could be understood collectively as all young women in Judah; virgins to begin with, but who would eventually marry and bear sons and, out of reverence, name them Immanuel. But it seems the most popular interpretation was that this prophecy meant that somewhere in Judah, there was a young virgin, but she would eventually marry and bear a son who would be the next good king of Judah. That next “good king” was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz. Hezekiah was thought of as a great reformer who abolished pagan worship practices and idols throughout Judah. Consequently, a major Jewish interpretation of this prophecy was that the child born of the “virgin” was Hezekiah. These interpretations would certainly resonate with the people of the time because no one would even consider the concept of a virgin giving birth.
Concerning our second reading, as most are probably aware, a major theme of St. Paul’s letters is that the “Law” (the Torah) is no longer binding for all who believe in Christ. Paul’s point is that the people are no longer bound by the law that they have never been able to follow; in other words, the law can’t save you because you cannot obey it fully. St. Paul tells us that salvation is not dependent upon the law but upon faith in the Son of God, who came to deliver humanity from the law. Therefore, in our second reading from The Letter to the Romans, St. Paul distinctly draws attention to Jesus’ lineage: Jesus is: “descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God …… through resurrection from the dead.” This is an important point! Through the resurrection of Christ, God abrogated the Torah (the law), which commands that anyone hung upon a tree was accursed (Dt 21:23). Paul’s point: Through resurrection from the dead, Jesus is established as the “Son of God.” If Jesus was cursed because of the crucifixion, why did God establish him as his son and raise him from the dead?
Our gospel passage relates to Matthew’s account of the conception of Jesus in the womb of his mother through the power of the Holy Spirit. But it also indicates how this put Joseph in a very difficult position. Joseph and Mary were “betrothed” but not living together. It was the common practice of these ancient societies that a couple would become betrothed – akin to what we would today call engagement – but would live separately for some months. But unlike our engagement, they were considered married, even though they did not share a household. If the woman was found to be pregnant during this time, it would be considered adultery, the penalty for which was stoning. Divorcing Mary “quietly” would probably not have been an option for Joseph as everyone in the area would have known they were married (betrothed), and when Mary began to show her pregnancy, everyone would have understood why the divorce happened.
In our gospel passage from Matthew, we have the “Annunciation” being made to Joseph by the “angel of the Lord,” whereas in Luke’s account, the annunciation is made to Mary. Because of this appearance of the angel to Joseph, he now fully understood the significance of the pregnancy and immediately showed compassion for Mary by taking her into his home to avoid the impropriety of adultery and the consequences of that sin to Mary. And Joseph, a descendent of David, by accepting Jesus as his own son, incorporates Jesus into “the House of David,” fulfilling the promise to David that his descendant would reign forever (see 2 Sam 7:11ff).
The “golden thread” of our readings this week is, quite plainly, the birth of Christ and, specifically, the virgin birth of Christ to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. And these readings are meant to prepare us for our two-fold Advent anticipation of the Incarnation of Christ at Christmas and his anticipated return in judgment at the end of time. Be prepared!!!