GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Okay, so let's break this passage down and look at a few key points here of significance.
Number one, notice the context here.
Matthew is describing the birth of Christ and he says that “when his mother Mary had been betrothed, but before Joseph and her had come together.”
What would that have meant in a first century Jewish context?
Well Matthew is referring here to the two-stage process of marriage that ancient Jews practice.
So in an ancient Jewish setting, a man and a woman would become legally married through an act of betrothal.
It's different than an engagement in our time.
Sometimes people say that Mary and Joseph were engaged.
They weren’t engaged; betrothal was legal entry into a covenant marriage.
So once a person's betrothed to someone else, they are husband and wife.
However, they don't consummate the marriage until the two of them move in with one another.
As I point out — I have a book, Jesus the Bridegroom,
where I go into this in a little more detail — it was customary that after the betrothal, the bridegroom would go and prepare a home in order to bring his bride into his home.
St. Joseph, being a carpenter, could've obviously done this.
So he would go off and build a home and then what we would call the wedding ceremony would actually take place over the course of seven days and it would culminate in the procession of the bride into the home of the bridegroom.
And then the marriage would be consummated.
So the image here is of Mary and Joseph being married but not yet living together in the same home, not yet having celebrated the final wedding ceremony with its consummation.
And that's why, point 2, when Mary becomes pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph is alarmed, Joseph is perplexed at what to do. because he has not yet taken Mary into his home.
What's being emphasized by Matthew here at this point is, then of course, the virginal conception of Jesus, that Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And so when St. Joseph decides to send her away — literally in the Greek to divorce her, to put her away —
the angel appears to him and says “don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife” — meaning take her into your home — for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
So we have a clear affirmation there of the virginal conception.
Now notice what it says here, “she will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
What does that mean?
Well in the original Aramaic tongue — which was probably spoken by most Jews at time of Jesus’ birth — the name for Jesus is Yeshua, and it means in Aramaic God saves,
or more properly the Lord saves.
There is kind of a pun here in the Angel’s proclamation.
She will call his name the Lord saves
because he will save his people from their sins.
So we are already getting a revelation of the virginal conception of Jesus and the meaning of his name, revealing his identity as the savior.
The third and final aspect of this text that is the most important in some ways, is the fact that Matthew highlights that the virginal conception of Jesus, this miraculous conception, this unprecedented conception, is in fact a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
And once again, Isaiah stands front and center.
So he goes back to Isaiah 7:14, this prophecy of a virgin who shall conceive and bear a son, and whose name shall be called Immanuel, which means God with us
or God is with us.
There again we see the significance of the name.
So Isaiah 7:14 — you won't be surprised to note — is in fact the first reading for this Sunday.
So in order to understand why Matthew points this reading it is actually helpful for us to go back and look at the text in context.
So if you turn back to the book of Isaiah 7:14, we will put that verse in context with the first reading by looking at verses 10-14.
Now a little caveat before we read the passage.
What I'm about to read is one of the most controversial and debated passages in the Old Testament.
As we've just seen, St. Matthew takes this text and interprets it as a prophecy of the literal virginal conception of Jesus by an actual Virgin, namely the Virgin Mary.
So let's go back to the Old Testament reading and see what passage Matthew was alluding to in the book of Isaiah and try to put it in context.
So if we turn back to the book of Isaiah 7:10-14, this is the first reading for this Fourth Sunday of Advent.
Before I read it let me give you a little bit of context.
The context here is that the northern ten tribes of Israel, that are often called Ephraim or Israel, have teamed up with the pagan Empire of Syria, the pagan nation of Syria, and they are threatening to attack the southern kingdom of Judah.
Now the king at this time over the South is King Ahaz, and so he's obviously in a state of fear and trepidation about what to do in the face of this crisis, and so the prophet Isaiah, who was living in the eighth century before Christ at the time of King Ahaz, goes to King Ahaz to bring him a message of encouragement from the Lord.
And in the midst of this message of encouragement, Isaiah gives this mysterious oracle of a virgin who will conceive and bear a son.
So let's look at that passage together.
This is the first reading, Isaiah 7:10-14 says:
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, "Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven."
But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test."
And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el.
Pause there, that's where the prophecy stops.
So notice three aspects of this prophecy.
Number one, Isaiah is telling King Ahaz, “you can ask for miracle, you can ask for a sign, and it doesn't matter how big it is, it can be as high as heaven or as deep as sheol, and the Lord is going to give it to you.”
Now Ahaz, almost in a
kind of false humility, says “Oh no, no, I don't want to put the Lord, my God, to the test.” And God is angry with him for that so he responses and says “fine then, the Lord himself will give you a sign, and here is the sign, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
Now pause there.
This is an extremely controversial verse because the Hebrew word there that many translations — like the New American Bible or the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition — translate the word as virgin.
The Hebrew word there is almah,
and this word is sometimes translated as a young woman, because in many contexts that appears to be the meaning.
So scholars have debated for a long time, is it a virgin, meaning a woman hasn't had marital relation, or is it just a generic reference to a young woman.
In other words, is the emphasis on her age or on her virginity.
Now that's an unfortunate debate because in English we actually have a virtually exact equivalent to this Hebrew word almah. Almah
doesn't exactly mean just young woman.
The Hebrew word almah,
the best English equivalent for it is the word maiden.
It's a kind of archaic or traditional English word, but if you've read 19th century novels, or even early 20th century works, whenever you see the word maiden, the word maiden means a young woman who is not married and therefore has not had marital relations.
So in other words it's a both and, she's both young and a virgin.
That's what the word almah
means and you can see this in other passages in the book of Genesis.
Genesis 24:43 says that “Rebecca was an almah
(a maiden), whom no man had known.”
In other words, she had not had relations with a man.
So there is an emphasis here on her virginity, and yet she bears a son and then she's going to name that son Immanuel.
Again the Hebrew matters here, the word Immanuel in Hebrew means God with us
or with us is God.
So what does Matthew do?
Matthew looks at that passage in the Old Testament and, although if you go back to Isaiah 7, 8 and 9 — and I don't have time to do this now — there are some reasons to think that on one level that prophecy may be kind of preliminarily fulfilled in the figure of King Hezekiah, who was the son of Ahaz, and during whose time the crisis with Syria and Ephraim came to an end — that the Lord delivered his people at that time — there are other elements of the prophecies of Isaiah 7,8 and 9 that appear to describe a child who's going to go well beyond what King Hezekiah ever was.
So for example, in Isaiah 9 it says “unto us a son is born, and his name shall be Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Gather, Mighty God and Prince of Peace.”
So is this king a divine king or is he just human?
There is kind of this development of this great King who will be so great that he will be called Mighty God and Everlasting Gather.
So the prophecy in Isaiah, it may have a preliminary fulfillment in King Hezekiah, but it has it’s ultimate fulfillment in Jesus.
So Matthew is saying that Isaiah chapter 7, that virginal conception, is truly fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ, who was conceived of the power of the Holy Spirit and who is in fact literally God with us
In other words, the divine son of God has become man in the incarnation so that his title is Immanuel, God with us.
That's the good news that Matthew is announcing in his Gospel.
The good news, not just of the birth of the Messiah, but of God with us
In order to sum this up, I love the writing of Pope Benedict 16th.
In the third volume of his book Jesus Nazareth,
he actually recognized that there are aspects of this prophecy from Isaiah that can be applied to the birth of Hezekiah in the eighth century BC, but he also says that the word of Isaiah is like a word in waiting.
In other words, it's waiting for someone to come who is greater than any Davidic king, who will fulfill this miraculous virginal conception and become God with us,
and that word was waiting until Jesus came and fulfilled it in the New Testament in the first century A.D.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Okay, so the context of this passage is it’s the opening to what is perhaps, arguably, St. Paul’s most famous letter—his letter to the Church at Rome, which was written to a congregation that he did not found himself, but to which he eventually traveled and at which he was eventually martyred actually, in the context of the persecution of the Christians in Rome, under Caesar Nero in the 60s of the first century AD. Very powerful letter. There are a few elements of the letter that are worth highlighting, both to understand its original meaning but also why the Church has chosen this for today.
The first one is just Paul’s emphasis on the Gospel. So verse 1, right there, he says that he was “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” And the Greek word there, euangelion
, literally means “good news” or “good message.” And it was a term that was associated in Jewish contexts with the book of Isaiah. If you go back to Isaiah 40 and you read through, there’s one chapter in the Old Testament where the expression “good news” occurs several times. And the context of that chapter is the good news of the coming of God. So, I would encourage you to read the whole chapter if you want more background on that, but I’ll at least just read a couple of verses.
So if you were a first century Jew and you reading Paul’s letter, and he talks about the good news or the Gospel, and you thought about the Old Testament, you would remember these words from Isaiah 40:9-10:
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
...literally in Hebrew, “good news.”
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
So, pause there. Notice then, in a Jewish context, if you’re alluding to Isaiah and you’re talking about the good news (or the Gospel), well...what is the good news? It’s the good news of the coming of God—very powerful. So Paul is then called and set apart for the good news of the coming of God.
Second, the expression euangelion
or good news (good message) also had a meaning in an ancient pagan context as well. I’ve mentioned this in another video before, but I still think it’s worth highlighting here just because it’s so fascinating. In the 20th century, an ancient inscription from Priene was discovered. This inscription was from around the year 9 BC—so not long before Jesus Himself was born. It was an inscription celebrating the birth of Caesar Augustus, the emperor. And it’s fascinating that this inscription uses the expression “good news” (euangelion)
or “gospel” to celebrate the birth of Caesar as the divine savior of the Roman empire. So listen to these words from the Priene Inscription:
Since the Providence which has ordered all things is deeply interested in our life has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus
, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit mankind, sending him as a savior
, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (Greek epiphanein
), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god (Greek theos
) Augustus was the beginning of the world of the good tidings (Greek euangeliōn
) that came by reason of him.”
The reason I bring this up is: to whom is Paul writing? He’s writing to the Church at Rome, right? So we found inscriptions from the ancient Roman empire that used the expression “good news” to refer to the birth of Caesar Augustus as a divine emperor and the savior of the world. So I can’t help but imagine here being a Gentile reader of Paul’s letter in the Roman Church, when you hear the “good news of God”—there being a kind of second meaning. On the one hand, he’s referring to the fulfillment of Scriptures. He’s referring to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah—the good news of the coming of God in Jesus Christ.
But on another level, there’s also a kind of implicit contrast between the good news of the birth of Jesus, who is God made flesh and Savior of the world; and Caesar, who the pagans claimed to be a god and the savior of the world through the establishment of the Roman empire. So I’m not the first person to point this out. Pope Benedict XVI in his three-volume set, Jesus of Nazareth
, actually points to this same inscription as one of the connotations that the word “Gospel” would have in a first century setting. So it’s very fitting—you can already see why we would use this—that during the Advent season, the Church highlight Paul’s most famous proclamation of the good news of the birth of the true Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
In other words, even the expression “good news” could be taken to mean “Jesus Christ is Lord, and Caesar is not."
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