"Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (18 December 2016)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

JGospel

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife. (Matthew 1:18–24 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

Neither Mark nor John have infancy narratives.

In Luke, the infancy narrative is quite extensive – occupying chapters 1 and 2 – and focuses on Mary.

In Matthew, the first two chapters are also given over to the infancy narrative. But the focus is different. Matthew alone has the detailed genealogy and he focuses on St Joseph rather than Mary. Note for example, in Luke the Angel appears to Mary (see Luke 1:26-38), in Matthew the angel appears to Joseph (see Matthew 1:20-23).

One scholar writes of this text from Matthew: “Vv. 1–17 provided an account of the origin of Jesus which was concerned with relating him, via genealogy, to the course of God’s dealings with his people from Abraham to his own generation. Now in vv. 19–25 the wide-angle-lens view of vv. 1–17 gives way to close-up camera work. Attention is focussed on the immediate circumstances of Jesus’ birth.... Matthew’s Infancy Narrative will run from 1:19 to 2:23.” (John Nolland, Preface in The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 90-91.)

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit: In Deuteronomy 22:23-27 we find the relevant law referred to by Matthew: “Where the woman is a consenting partner, both are to be put to death (vv. 23–24); where she has been violated, only the guilty man is to be executed (vv. 25–27). But the violation has taken place: the girl is no longer a virgin. Angelo Tosato cites evidence that she is no longer eligible to be married to her betrothed; she must be given a bill of divorce. Joseph, being just, saw that he was unable to consummate the marriage, but he did not want to be harsh. Perhaps we should say that for Joseph being just before God included an element of mercy (the ‘just man’ is compassionate, Ps. 37:21). Probably also he preferred to act in a way that would avoid an open scandal. He could have made a public display of his indignation by taking Mary before the law court and making an example of her. But his concern for the law did not lead him to the conclusion that he must humiliate the young lady who, he thought, had offended. He preferred to divorce her secretly. Divorce was no great problem for an Israelite man: he simply had to give the lady ‘a bill of divorce’ before two witnesses and send her away (the procedure is given in Deut. 24:1). (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 28.)

an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid: Leon Morris writes: “An angel appeared. The word means a messenger: occasionally in the New Testament it is used of a human messenger (Luke 7:24), but more often it refers to a messenger from God, as is made clear here by the addition of the Lord. .... Matthew specifies that this angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, an expression used 6 times by Matthew and by no one else in the New Testament. Nothing is said about the appearance of the angel or anything he did; attention is concentrated on his message. He addresses Joseph as son of David, an expression used of Jesus in verse 1. The expression is one of dignity, and Matthew perhaps records it as emphasizing the royal line of Jesus. Don’t be afraid does not necessarily indicate fear; the word may be used in the sense ‘shrink from doing something’, and it is this sense that is required here.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 28-29.)

you are to name him Jesus: The fact that Joseph names the child has legal implications – he is accepting and claiming this child as his. We might take this as an echo of the Prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

he will save his people from their sins: This is not only a statement about Jesus and his role, it is also a statement about us and the centrality of grace: “The impression is sometimes given that Matthew stresses upright living whereas Paul speaks of saving grace. It is true that these two writers have their own emphases, and we should not interpret either as though he were setting forth the other’s thoughts. But neither should we overlook the fact that all the New Testament writers refer to the same Savior. And all stress the importance of grace. Matthew will later return to the idea that Jesus brings forgiveness (e.g., 20:28; 26:28)” (Leon Morris, op cit, 30.)

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: The Christian Scriptures return to the Hebrew Scriptures more than 300 times to give authority to what they are saying. Matthew is particularly careful to do this in his statements that this or that is to “fulfill” what has happened – see 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9.

they shall name him Emmanuel: The quotation is from Isaiah 7:14. Morris writes: “As far as our information goes, nobody ever called Jesus ‘Emmanuel’; it was not the child’s name in the same sense as ‘Jesus’ was. Matthew surely intends his readers to understand that ‘Emmanuel’ was his name in the sense that all that was involved in that name found its fulfilment in him. The quotation and the translation of the Hebrew name underline the fact that in Jesus none less than God came right where we are. And at the end of this Gospel there is the promise that Jesus will be with his people to the end of the age (28:20)—God with us indeed.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 31.)

Reflection

Harper Lee won the Pulitzer prize for her 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. That book has sold more than eleven million copies. The Oscar-winning film version was made in 1962. At the heart of this tragic story about racial prejudice and injustice, stands the local attorney, Atticus Finch – wonderfully played in the film by Gregory Peck. Atticus is a man of deep integrity and moral courage. He defends a young black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. Evil has one of its awful victories on that day. Yet, the dignity of Atticus reminds us of another, higher order of things.

His young daughter, Scout, watching from the balcony with the black folk, recalls the moment: “I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: ‘Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty’ .... Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his brief-case. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, .... and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus put his hand on Tom’s shoulder as he whispered. Atticus took his coat off the back of the chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the court room, but not by his usual exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up. Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes off the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’ lonely walk down the aisle. ‘Miss Jean Louise?’ I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s: ‘Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

Joseph is portrayed in today’s Gospel as a man of dignity: “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose (Mary) to public disgrace .....”. The angel of the Lord addresses him with deep respect: “Joseph, son of David ....” He is to be “father” of the Anointed One, the Christ. The angel’s instruction to Joseph to name the child that Mary is bearing, is legitimation of his fatherhood. The dignity of both Joseph and Mary is thus protected. We are reminded of the Prophet Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

God says to each of us: “I created you, I formed you, do not fear; I have called you by name, you are mine!” And God says that to all the others too – all the others, no matter their race, their colour, their beliefs. Therein lies our dignity.