The gospel readings of the coming year come from Matthew. Today’s reading, concerning ‘how Jesus Christ came to be born’, expresses the faith in the Incarnation of the community for which Matthew wrote. This community of Jewish Christians were anxious to persuade those with whom they had shared the traditions of Israel to believe in Christ as the ‘fulfilment’ of ‘the Law and the prophets’ (Mt 5:17).
Whereas, the more familiar story of Christ’s birth, in Luke’s gospel, is centred on Mary, the mother of the Saviour, Matthew’s account – so remarkable in its accord is essentials with Luke’s account – is told from the point of view of Joseph, the one who was destined to be the foster father of the Saviour. It is through Joseph that the Davidic lineage of the child to be born - so important in the hopes of Israel - is proclaimed. Finding his betrothed to be with child, Joseph ‘being a just man’ considered divorcing her quietly. Some scholars see profound significance in Matthew’s reference to ‘justice’ (i.e. fidelity to the traditions of Israel): the implication that before the divine mystery that confronted him – probably through his being informed by Mary – Joseph’s first reaction was a sense of unworthiness. His reluctance was only overcome by a divine call that led him to take up the immense responsibility that was to be his.
As in Luke’s account, Mary’s virginal conception is clearly affirmed. Her son is not only to be ‘a descendant of David’, as our reading from Romans declares, but also the Son of God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit - something that our reading from Romans declares will be made manifest to the whole world ‘through his resurrections from the dead’. Matthew also cites the words of Isaiah, ‘a virgin will conceive’. The prophet’s prediction, in fact, was that Ahaz the king was to be given a sign from God in the coming birth of a son. (There are about a dozen of these ‘all this was to fulfil’ citations in Matthew’s gospel. They are not technical interpretations of the texts cited, but expressions - in the spirit of the rabbinical traditions - of the conviction that Christian faith’s reading of the Old Testament recognises the ‘fulfilment’ of old Israel’s hopes.)
The Davidic Messiah announced to Joseph in his dream is far more than a liberator from Roman occupation. His name – which means ‘God saves’ – points to his role as the Saviour.‘Saving the people from their sins’, he will fulfil the true destiny of Israel, as the people chosen to bring the whole world to share in God’s final blessings.
Telling of his coming as ‘Emmanuel’ – a name that means ‘God is with us’ – Matthew invites the Jewish people to recognise that the great theme of divine presence, running through the Scriptures, ‘I will be your God; and you will be my people’, has found a realisation beyond all their imagining. In fact, Matthew’s gospel will close with the same theme from the mouth of Jesus himself: ‘I am with you always; yes, to the end of time’.
John Thornhill sm