In today’s readings from the Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of Matthew, we learn about Jesus’ human and divine origins. Romans asserts that Jesus is “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3), and Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to David and Abraham through his adopted father, Joseph (Mt 1:1-17). While affirming Jesus’ humanity, both Romans and Matthew also proclaim Jesus’ divinity, as he is the Son of God (Rom 1:4), conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18). Nearly five centuries after Jesus’ birth, the ecumenical council of Chalcedon would affirm the doctrine that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Today’s readings influenced that teaching, and it is worthwhile for us to reflect on both aspects of Christ.
Ask for a sign. (Is 7:11)
How can I increase my knowledge of Christ?
Am I open to biblical texts having multiple meanings?
Do I trust in God, even during difficult moments in my life?
The first reading and the Gospel show how biblical texts interact. Isaiah 7 is set during the Syro-Ephramite War of the eighth century B.C.E. With Judah under military pressure, King Ahaz is nervous about the stability of his kingdom and the Davidic dynasty. The prophet Isaiah assures Ahaz of divine protection, and the meanings of his children’s Hebrew names, along with the events of their lives, are symbolic signs of God’s defense of Ahaz and Judah. Isaiah’s children are Shear-jashub (a remnant will return), Emmanuel (God is with us) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (quick spoils, speedy plunder). The Hebrew text of Is 7:14 says that Emmanuel will be born of a young woman (‘almah, rendered in Greek as parthenos, virgin).
Matthew frequently quotes or alludes to passages in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and he often depicts Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Matthew reinterprets the Emmanuel child as Jesus born of the virgin Mary (Mt 1:23) rather than Isaiah’s son by an unnamed young woman.
How should we interpret the Emmanuel prophecy? As modern readers of the Bible, we should recognize that texts can have different meanings in different contexts. In Ahaz’s historical context, the symbolic child is from his time period. The child’s name and the milestones of his life are signals of the Lord’s protection of Judah during an imminent invasion. In light of later traditions, theological beliefs and revelation, Matthew connects Jesus to the Emmanuel prophecy of old. Over 800 years later, Matthew reinterprets the prophecy and sees its fulfilment in Jesus’ birth through the virgin Mary. Matthew’s reading does not negate or supersede the Emmanuel prophecy in its original context; instead, Matthew provides a fuller sense (sensus plenior) of Isaiah in light of Christ.
Lastly, we should pay attention to God’s response to Ahaz and Joseph in today’s readings. Ahaz is insecure because of an impending war. Joseph is uncertain about Mary and their forthcoming marriage. In both cases, God responds by offering assurance. Ahaz receives prophetic messages and signs, and Joseph is visited by an angel, who instructs him to marry Mary. Notably, Joseph is informed of what Mary presumably already knows: that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. We too can benefit from looking for God’s guidance, especially when we lack confidence, and can find comfort in knowing that God is active in our lives.