FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
While it may appear at first reading that Matthew [or more accurately, the editors of the Sunday Lectionary] have jumped the gun a bit by the inclusion of a “Christmas Story” in the liturgy before Christmas Eve, in fact Chapter 1 is less about what happened at the first Christmas and more about the true nature of the one born in Bethlehem. We have not had an opportunity to talk here on the blog about Matthew’s actual intentions in writing his entire Gospel, which is critical to understanding the first two chapters popularly referred to as infancy or childhood narratives.
There was a longstanding belief in the Church that Matthew wrote his Gospel from a direct inspiration and narration of an angel, and for this reason the Matthean Gospel was often referred to as the Gospel of the Church. The latter texts in this Gospel referring to the leadership of Peter and the establishment of an ecclesia or church may have something to do with the later Church’s affection for Matthew and the placement of his Gospel at the beginning of the New Testament. However, scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came to understand that all four evangelists had unique emphases or “Christologies,” and so attention turned to the theological intentions of Mark, Luke, and John, as well as Matthew.
There is now a measure of agreement that Matthew intended his Gospel for Greek-speaking Jews living after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jews and Christians had not yet made a formal break, and many Jews were in fact baptized into the community of Jesus’ believers. We cannot fully appreciate the psychological impact of the Roman destruction upon Jews of the time, and the scattering or diaspora of the Jews about the Mediterranean was now in full process. Matthew, whose actual identity is unknown, attempted to rally despondent Jews by laying out the case that the Hebrew Scriptures had come to fulfillment in Jesus, and that Jesus was in fact the New Moses.
The “infancy narratives” in Matthew are thus a theological justification for these claims. They are “theology by metaphor,” so to speak. R.T. France divides Matthew’s infancy narratives into two parts (Matthew 1: 1-17, the “Book of Origin” of the Messiah: and Matthew 1:18-2:23, “A Demonstration That Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah: Five Scriptural Proofs.” An easy access to both chapters can be found here at the USCCB website for a quick perusal. By this reckoning our Sunday reading is the first of the five demonstrations. Prior to Matthew 1:18ff is the lengthy genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew traces back to Abraham, establishing that Jesus is a true son of Israel. (By contrast, Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam.)
France writes that the genealogy has one problem, in Matthew 1:16. The line of descendants is always through the male, but at this point Joseph is described as the husband of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah. There is no statement that Joseph is the father of Jesus. This omission, and the interjection of Mary, would call for some explanation to Jews who understood the importance of bloodline in the identity of their faith.
Our Sunday text is the answer to the dilemma. As Matthew begins, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” These six lines address the peculiarity of Jesus’ origin, maintaining his place as the focus of Abraham’s bloodline, but they also demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah (per France) and the New Moses. The evangelist describes the relationship of Mary and Joseph as one of “betrothal.” This is a stronger term than our “engagement,” for in Jewish Law betrothal was a binding commitment, though a betrothed couple was not yet carnally involved till the marriage rite. This is not to say that all couples entered their marriages pure as lilies, but in our text Joseph is described as a righteous man who had not yet taken Mary into his home. France emphasizes how carefully Matthew avoids any suggestion that Jesus might be Joseph’s son.
Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit (i.e., a divine conception). Interestingly, Matthew gives no indication that Mary herself appreciates the cause of her pregnancy. At this juncture, the reader knows more than the players. Matthew has already described Joseph as righteous, but the term implies compliance with the Law. France notes that prior to the Roman occupation a betrothed woman was considered an adulteress and condemned to stoning; Roman governors halted this practice, and a righteous man in Joseph’s day would take his unfaithful betrothed or wife to the priests and publicly receive a writ of divorce.
Joseph was not only righteous, he was conflicted. His only option was a private divorce before two witnesses, permissible by the Law but not exactly an optimum outcome for a woman in a small town that knew of the engagement. It was the best that a virtuous Jewish man could do for a woman he loved—the minimum penalty available—and the Greek tenses indicate that this decision was his and his alone, prior to any divine intervention.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Sunday’s text is that the revelation of the angel comes to Joseph in his sleep, and not to Mary. The heart of the message is nearly verbatim to Gabriel’s appearance to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, but in Matthew’s strongly Jewish text even this sacred revelation comes to the patriarch of the household. Joseph is to name the child Jesus, who will one day forgive sins, a divine function. France devotes considerable attention to the prophesy uttered by the angel about a young woman conceiving and bearing a son, specifically Isaiah 7:14ff. The literary and historical circumstances of this prophesy are intensely complicated; suffice to say in late Judaism the Septuagint bible translated “young woman” as “virgin,” and Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah’s prophesy has served as an important feature of Catholic worship and Marian piety for nearly all of its history.
It is interesting that the Catholic Mass Lectionary does not include the entire paragraph, leaving off the phrase “…he accepted his wife, and he did not have intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son, and he gave him the name Jesus.” Again, one of Matthew’s theological concerns is the divine paternity of Christ, and he again goes to great pains to assure the reader that Jesus can only be God’s son. To read into the text the possibility of Jesus having brothers and sisters is to stretch the text like taffy into considerations unconnected to the theology and purposes of the evangelist Matthew.