Opening the Word: God is among us

Today’s readings begin with God speaking to an ancient king of dubious faith and conclude with a humble craftsman obeying God’s words with silent, steady faith. Centered between the two are several declarations about the baby, man and the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Ahaz, the king of Judah (and thus of the Davidic line), who reigned in the late eighth-century B.C., was a leader in a tight spot. Threatened by an alliance of Syrians and Israelites, he looked to the Assyrians for support. The prophet Isaiah had already approached Ahaz, telling him that he must place full trust in God, not in convenient but ruinous political alliances. “Unless your faith is firm,” Isaiah told the wavering ruler, “ you shall not be firm!” (Is 7:1-9). Ahaz was even offered a sign, a remarkable concession to his weak faith. His rejection of the offer was not based in humility, but reflected his decision to side with the Assyrians. Yet a sign was still given, one much discussed over the many centuries. The essential point is that God is true to his covenant, and he does fulfill the promises made to King David — fully and completely in Jesus Christ.

The reading from Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph, yet Mary’s betrothed is completely silent throughout. Joseph was also in a tight spot. The young Mary, to whom he was engaged but not yet married, was pregnant. Following the usual practice, Joseph had been covenanted to Mary and their engagement was as legally binding as marriage. Joseph, “a righteous man,” decided he would quietly divorce Mary. This would keep her from widespread shame but would leave her a single mother, which probably meant a life of poverty and struggle. Joseph, then, sought to follow the Law closely while being as merciful as possible to Mary.

Joseph, like King Ahaz, received the word of God, spoken by an angel of the Lord in a dream. Like the prophet Isaiah, the angel addresses the key problem: fear. Yet Joseph, unlike Ahaz, didn’t respond cynically or disingenuously. On the contrary, when he awoke, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” Joseph, in other words, responded with a humble and open heart to the Gospel. For surely the angel’s words were indeed a declaration of the Good News: “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The reference to the prophecy by Isaiah indicates that Joseph was versed in the Law and the Prophets. He recognized, to some degree, the Messianic quality of that statement.

What of the name “Emmanuel”? St. John Chrysostom remarked that the statement, “they shall name him Emmanuel,” refers to the entirety of Christ’s person, deeds and actions. “... This is customary in Scripture, to substitute names for the actual events. Therefore to say ‘they shall call him ‘Emmanuel’ means nothing else than they shall see God among us.”

God was in the Garden of Eden, with Abraham and Moses, and with the many prophets and holy people of Israel. But when Mary conceived a son through the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence among men was revealed beyond comprehension. And this presence among all people was manifest in the womb of a specific virgin. And she, while pregnant, was taken into the home of Joseph, sheltered by his obedience and love. “She does not move, she says not a word, she adores,” wrote the poet Paul Claudel. “She is interior to the world, for her God is no longer outside.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.