Lectionary commentary: fourth Sunday of Advent, year A
Fr. O'Hanlon presents his commentary on the readings for the coming Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 7:10-14
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 24:1-6. R/. cf. vv. 7.10
A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Romans, 1:1-7
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 1:18-24
Today’s readings from our Holy Bible raise questions that ought not to concern people who are attempting to enter the spirit of the season of Advent. Prayer, reflection, meditation, and expectation ought to fill every mind and heart that seeks to celebrate God-with-Us when Advent comes to the day of Christmas.
But there are some issues of translation that demand comment, not of the kind that will blunt faith. Rather they expose how difficult it is accurately to render words in one language into the language of another culture, another time, and another place.
The first issue arises from the translation of some words spoken by the LORD to King Ahaz. The King was faced with the threat of a Syro-Ephraimite aggressive alliance on his northern border. Ahaz was contemplating seeking foreign help. The LORD, speaking through Isaiah, opposed such a reckless plan and Isaiah insisted that the LORD would offer a sign so that the king could be sure of peace and of a future. Ahaz’s faith in God did not stretch to believing every word the prophet spoke. So the LORD promised a child that would guarantee a future for the kingdom and a divine assurance guarantee of peace. It is in the wording of that promise that our first problem comes to light.
The ESV translation of the Hebrew sentence is this:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall
call his name Immanuel.
The Jerusalem Bible offers,
… a maiden is with child
and will soon give birth to a son
whom she will call Emmanuel.
The Jewish Study Bible offers,
Look, the young woman is with child
and about to give birth to a son.
Let her name him Immanuel.
The latest edition of the Jerusalem Bible, the Revised New Jerusalem Bible has a change of mind and rejects “a maiden”:
Look, the virgin is with child
and will give birth to a son
whom she will call Immanuel.
The New King James Version, following the 1611 King James translation (KJV) has,
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and
shall call His name Immanuel.
The New American Standard Version is close to its parent, the KJV:
Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son,
and she will call him Immanuel.
Virgin, maiden, young woman; which is it to be? A further question is questions who is meant by the virgin, or the young woman.
When central doctrines of Christianity are based on evidence from the Bible it is very important that all Christians have a clear understanding of the issues involved. None of us is called to blind faith.
Why are there such divergent translations of this text and why do some Catholic Episcopal Conferences around the world insist that scholars they have appointed to prepare a new translation must translate Isaiah 7:14 in a certain way?
There is no difficulty in the Hebrew text. The word is halmah and that means “the young woman of marriageable age” (the initial h is the definite article the). The verse does not use the technical word for “virgin” or “a (virgin) maiden” (b e tûlá). In the context in Isaiah the reference to a coming child may be to the future King Hezekiah. The point is that God is mindful of the divine assurance given through the prophet Nathan to King David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son … my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. II
Isaiah is advising King Ahaz to put his trust in God and to believe that God will be faithful to the promise made to David. Ahaz does not share the faith of Isaiah but the prophet ‘s faith is unshakeable: The young woman may very well be the wife of Ahaz and she will bear a son whose name will be Immanuel (God-with-us), giving assurance to everyone that God will remain present to king and people forever.
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made in Alexandria about 250 years before the birth of Jesus. Its translation of Isaiah 7:14 is this:
ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν,
καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ·
Behold, the Virgin shall be with child and will bear a son,
and you shall name him Immanuel.
The words highlighted in red mean “the virgin”, using the ordinary Greek word for a virgin. St Paul uses the word 6 times in I Corinthians 7. It occurs all-told 15 times in the New Testament and it always means a virgin, not simply an unmarried woman. For example, the text of Revelations 14:4 reads,
No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had
been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not
defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.
While not wishing to comment on the sound of this virginal choir, it is virgins, male or female, who are singing the song.
Since the writers of the New Testament always quoted from the Septuagint, it is no surprise to discover that Matthew uses the word parthenos in quoting Isaiah 7:14. It should be noted that the Septuagint uses parthenos consistently to translate the Hebrew word b e tûlá (virgin).
If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies
with her, he shall give the bride- price for her and make
her his wife.
I have made a covenant with my eyes;how then could I gaze at a virgin?
In Isaiah 23:4 uses b e tûlá in his Hebrew text to refer to “virgins”:
I am one …
who has never …
raised youths,never reared virgins.
The point is that when he means to refer specifically to a “virgin”, Isaiah uses the appropriate Hebrew word. But this is not the Hebrew word he uses in 7:15.
However, when we turn to Matthew’s Gospel, we find that he uses the pertinent Greek word for “virgin” (parthenos) three times in his chapter 25 (verses 1, 7, 11).
Nonetheless, in Genesis 24:43 the word alma clearly implies a virgin maiden, for it refers to Rebekah, the beautiful matriarch of the people and the adored wife of Jacob, the mother of the saintly Joseph and his brother Benjamin. Even though the means of almah is “a young woman”, the ESV translates as follows
Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I
shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to
This is to go beyond what the word means and to translate on the assumption that Rebekah is a respectable virgin daughter of her brother Laban, the man responsible for the household. This is taking liberties with the Hebrew but the inference is justified. It would, however, be better to stick to the appropriate translation and let the reader infer the fact of her virginity. The Jewish Study Bible translates “the young woman”.
The Hebrew in that verse is, as in Isaiah 7:15, almah. What is clear is that there is much room for discussion as to whether Isaiah 7:15 refers to a virgin or to a young woman. But the tradition of the Church to identify Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus cannot be denied on the basis of the Hebrew vocabulary used in Isaiah 7:15.
I have laboured the point here because there is much discussion, and heated discussion at that, in Catholic and other Christian circles on the matter of the virginal conception of Jesus. Three observations are necessary.
First it must not be presumed that Isaiah understood that a future figure would appear, born of a virgin without the necessity of sexual intercourse. Religiously, Isaiah was concerned to point out to Ahaz that God would be true to the promise made long before that the people of Israel would not be left outside God’s god care. Politically, he was against alliances that involved linking with uncertain allies. If the child to be born was in fact the child of Ahaz’s wife, the prophet was assuring the vacillating king that he and his progeny had a future. That subsequent generations saw in Isaiah’s words an intimation that a successor to David, a son of David, as it were, would be born in Bethlehem to the virgin wife of Joseph, is surprising but not outside the provenance of God’s covenant with God’s people..
Secondly, the teaching of the Church is that the Scriptures and tradition determine the content of our creedal statements. Each must be submitted to rigorous and intelligent scrutiny to discover the exact meaning of what is affirmed to belong to the the faith of the people of God.
Thirdly, matters are not helped by abbreviating the two last sentences in Matthew’s paragraph from the today’s Gospel. The sentences concluding the passage from Matthew are these:
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the LORD commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Instead of these sentences, the Lectionary reading concludes,
He took his wife to his home.
This is not what Matthew wrote and the Lectionary appears to discourage intelligent scrutiny of God’s holy words.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 7:10-14
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,
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his
The word of the LORD.
The prophet Isaiah is the most quoted of all the prophets in the writings that make up the New Testament. The Book of Isaiah stretched over three hundred years of the precarious history of the people of God. Israel was frequently overrun by colonising powers. Exile and enslavement were almost everyday occurrences in the chequered history of that tiny nation. The miracle is that this people survived and was not wiped off the face of the earth.
The faith of this people was centred on their certainty that God would save them from that fate. Indeed, at the heart of their belief was that God, once having delivered them from slavery and made them his own, was obliged to save them and always to be concerned for their welfare. Surely a successor to David, their once and future king, would finally deliver this people into safety?
What happened was far beyond expectations. For the future was not to be the saving of Israel only. It was to be the saving of the world. Salvation would come in a person, a true son of Israel, given by a caring Father in order to shepherd humanity into peace.
There are 22 readings from Isaiah in the season of Advent, in the Year of Matthew. The series ends with a mighty hymn of glory:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of
happiness,who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Isaiah did know that there would be signs, that someday, exile would end and there would be a return of peace to end the pain of the people. That Jesus would become a sign of rejection by a world committed to its own selfish devices is down to sin:
Jesus said to them,
“Have you never read in the Scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the LORD's doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’.”
Matthew 21:42 (quoting Psalm 118:22-23)
The fulfilment that Isaiah longed for has become the mission of those who hear the words of God to achieve. When Christians embrace the child of the Virgin, they commit themselves to the mission of that child. As he stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee, so it is his mission to calm all humanity’s storms:
“Peace! Be still!”
And the wind ceased,
and there was a great calm.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 24:1-6. R/. cf. vv. 7. 10
R/. Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
The earth is the LORD'S and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers. R/.
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false. R/.
He will receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob. R/.
Psalm 24 is something of a mish-mash. It begins with a claim that the whole earth and every created thing belongs to God. The world and those who dwell therein, the sea and its torrents, all belong to the King of Glory.
Then there is a second theme that addresses those who go up to Jerusalem to stand before the LORD. The Psalm instructs pilgrims that only those who are without deceit and are clean of heart stand before the Presence.
That the psalm sounds like a marching hymn to be sung as people make their way up to the Temple is suggested by its place in Jewish liturgy. In Jewish tradition eventually this psalm was chosen to be sung as the Torah scroll was removed from its resting place and carried around the assembled congregation.
The Response sounds like a refrain, a chorus, repeated for emphasis. It praises the LORD as a warrior God. Given the many occasions when the Israelites faced defeat, were subjected to foreign domination, and suffered eternally from paying crippling taxes to rapacious conquers, the chorus must have been loudly sung, hoping that God and not foreign armies would come through the city gates.
A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Romans, 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The word of the LORD.
Paul had never been to Rome. He did not found any churches in Rome. He was unknown to most Christians in that city. Therefore he begins this letter to Christian house-churches and other assemblies in Rome with a summary of his Christian faith. In one long sentence he summarises everything that will eventually come to be enshrined in our Christian creeds. Each word and phrase is important. Paul wants to be received by Rome’s Christians and his first paragraph is intended to win hearts and minds. It is worth meditating on every syllable in order to come to know why Saul of Tarsus became Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.
To begin, according to usual letter-writing practice, Paul opens his address to Roman churches with a long introduction leading to a greeting: grace to you and peace. He calls himself a slave of Christ Jesus. Most English translations, including the ESV, the RSV, the NRSV, the JB, the NJB, the RNJB, the REB, and the NASB translate the Greek word doulos as servant. There seems to be a reluctance to translate this simple word by its primary meaning. If we turn to the words of Jesus we will receive guidance in the matter:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your slave, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
The contrast here is between top and bottom, between rulers and those who are at the bottom, the slaves who have no power, no authority, nor freedom, no identity. If Jesus is Lord, then Paul is his slave.
St Paul includes a hymn in his amazing Letter to Philippian Christians—his favourite community—that he seems to have borrowed from an early Christian song writer. It has these lines:
… though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not count equality with God
a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
by taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient
to the point of death,
—even death on a cross.
The hymn uses a Greek verb ĸενóω (kenοō, he emptied himself) that means the process of divesting oneself of all glory and of all pretensions to grandeur. In other words, in the society of the time, one becomes before God a slave, a disposable object without, as the poet said, a local habitation and a name. This is the status that the Jesus takes on in order to serve humanity, even more than that of a slave, is that of a crucified criminal on a cross.
This is why the word doulos, slave, when it is used to refer to Jesus should always be translated “slave”, not servant. To be to the Romans what Jesus was for all humanity, Paul names himself to be a slave of Christ Jesus.
Yet Paul is an apostle, a man sent, a man on a mission, a slave set apart to serve the gospel of God. Paul has been set apart by God (the Greek verb indicates that this is a permanent appointment). The gospel, the good news, has had a long incubation period being gradually revealed through the prophets. But when it comes about it is not a matter of words: It concerns his Son. It is about a man who was truly human, who was descended from David according to the flesh. Yet he was the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.
So far we have the identity of Paul, a slave with a mission. What Paul declares as the gospel of God is the identity of Jesus, a Son though human, yet Son of God. This Jesus is filled with the Spirit of God, and entirely subsumed into the holiness of God. All this Paul knows for the Son has been raised by God from death . His name is
and he is,
We know that the word Christ is the English for the Hebrew word Messiah, a word that is a job description. It refers to a calling, a vocation, a responsibility. What is demanded is not specified. But to be named a messiah is to be put on notice that there will be serious demands. To be God’s messiah is to be notified by God that the will of God will be placed upon your shoulders.
The heart of the gospel of God is here. God has given his Son to be our Lord, that is, to have the responsibility to shepherd the people of the world into peace. This is the gospel Paul has been chosen to proclaim.
The gospel of God is a declaration that evil will not endure forever. It is an announcement that God will have victory over all that is not in conformity with love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, the very essence of God. God’s will must be done on earth.
Descended from King David as to his human nature, this Messiah/Christ is revealed to be none other than God’s Son. The Son of God is not overcome by the cruel death he endured at the hands of religious and political powers. God will have the last word, Caiaphas or Pilate..
The resurrection of Jesus is a sign that death would not be the end of the story. It was and is a divine assertion that “all the nations” are called to hear and to live in the gospel, the good news, of God.
The word “gospel” requires some unpacking. Two stories will help. The first is about Absalom and the rape of his sister Tamar.
Absalom was a son of Kind David, a royal prince. His princess sister was named Tamar. David, as we know had many wives. The son of one of them was a man named Amnon and, of course, he was a half-brother to Absalom and to Tamar. This man lusted after Tamar and with David’s crafty brother a plot was hatched to bring Tamar to his bed. He feigned sickness and Tamar baked some cakes and took them to her ailing brother as he lay in bed. He locked her in and raped her. Then he threw her out.
Her brother Absalom took her into his home. David the King was angry bit did nothing. After all, she was only a woman. Absalom loved his sister and two years later he had Amnon, the heir to David’s throne, killed. He had to flee and eventually was himself killed in battle, a battle that saw twenty thousand slain.
When Absalom was killed, Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the priest, offered to run from the field of battle to give the good news to the King. But Joab, David’s commander-in-chief, told him that he was not the one to bring the good news: “You can carry good news on another day but not today”. Joab know David and knew that a messenger bringing even good news of a royal son killed might not greet the runner with open arms. So Joab orders a Cushite, a foreigner, to do the running. However, Ahimaaz ran after the Cushite, passed him out, and got to the King first. Lookouts spotted the two men running and rightly deduced there was good news to report. King David was optimistic:
And the king said,
“He is a good man and comes with
The Cushite arrived hard on the heels of the priest’s son shouting,
Good news for my lord the king.
Now if you count the number of times “good news” is mentioned in this sordid story, you will have grasped the meaning of the word “gospel”. It is not just ”news”. It is “good news of victory in battle”. The Hebrew word basar (and it is one word) is the Hebrew for our Greek word euangelion, the very word Paul uses in his phrase “the gospel of God”, that is, the good news from, or about, God.1
There is another story. When the Medes and the Persians (the Iranians in modern times) turned up in 490 B.C. off the shores of Greece with a massive fleet carrying many thousands of experienced soldiers, the citizens of Athens were seriously terrified. When their neighbours to the south, the Spartans, failed to join them in repulsing the enemy hordes, the terror intensified. But a miracle happened and the tiny Greek force won the famous Battle of Marathon.
An ancient historian named Plutarch told one of the many stories handed down commemorating one of the great battles in human history.
A messenger ran all the way from the field of victory to Athens, a distance of about 26 miles. His name was Pheidippides. He ran through the city gates shouting.
Good News! Good News!
Then he dropped dead. But he had reported that a great military victory had been won and that is remembered every time a marathon is run around the cities of the world. That is where we find the meaning of our word 'gospel.' It means a victory won in bathe. The gospel of God is the good news that God has won a great victory. What we must learn is what was the battle about, where was it fought, and who won, and why that great victory is the business of the whole of humanity, even the whole of God’s creation.
This is what, in obedience to God’s call, Paul must proclaim. For the name, the Presence, of this victorious God must be made known, even in the Rome, the heart of a cruel, exploitative, and coercive power. The call to Rome is to be saints, not an imperial tyrant. What Rome must become is a people of God, witnessing the depth of grace and peace that comes from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Paul’s understanding is always global. No one could accuse him of being small-minded. In Romans 2:16 Paul refers to the gospel of God as “my gospel” and in I Thessalonians 1:5 he speaks of “our gospel”. God’s victory becomes Paul’s victory, and becomes our victory, and our responsibility.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 1:18-24
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, [but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus].2
The Gospel of the LORD.
Before entering into the details of Matthew’s story of the conception and birth of Jesus, there are some identity matters discuss.
Joseph the Dreamer
The picture of St Joseph that many Christians unthinkingly accept is of an old man caring for a young mother and child. There is nothing in Matthew’s Gospel to support this caricature. For the old man image we are, in the main, indebted to a document now called the Protoevengelium of James, a late second-century fictitious Gospel, a text that was popular in many Christian circles for many years. It survives in many languages: Greek, Latin, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Slavonic. The book purports to have been written by James, the brother of the Lord.
The Protoevangelium (a name that signifies something like “preliminary or basic details, the beginning of things) tells of an elderly couple, Joachim and Anna, whose prayer for a child was answered with a daughter whom they named Mariam or Mary. Like the baby Samuel of old, the child was lodged in the Temple in Jerusalem where she was fed by an angel. When she was twelve years old and approaching puberty, the High Priest assembled all the old widowers in the land to select a husband for her. A dove alighted on the head of Joseph who instantly objected that he had many sons and was far advanced in years. But he was forced to marry the young girl. An angel of the LORD appeared to Mary to tell her that she was to have a son. In her sixth month Joseph discovered what he regarded as a deception and was unsure what to do. So another angel of the LORD stood up to the plate and assured him in a dream. The matter was set before the High Priest and assurances were given. The child was born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Google Protoevengelium for the full fictional tale.
St Matthew’s Joseph is made of sterner stuff. Young, energetic (all that walking to distant Egypt), thoughtful, magnanimous, a man who trusted God profoundly—that is the Joseph we meet in Matthew. He does not lightly dismiss his pregnant wife nor does he lightly take responsibility for what God proposes. Only the foolhardy give in lightly to God.
The angel in Joseph’s dreams has to deal with a man who had a passion for doing what is right and a reverence for God. Responsibility for one who is to save his people from their sins, who is to be God-with-Us was not under taken lightly, not without hesitation, reflection, reassurance. In fact, our Joseph is modelled on Joseph, the man who wore a fancy dream-coat, that man who was ever assured of God’s steadfast love, and who saved his people and everyone else from the ravages of famine.
The stories of the conception and birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are not historical records. They do not provide us with a biography of the infant Jesus. They do not set out to satisfy our historical curiosity. They are that rare thing among all the books that ever were: gospel, good news.
What today’s Gospel presents is a preliminary analysis of what the adult Jesus is destined to be, the Immanuel (God-with-Us) who takes way the sins of his people, the one who fulfils every word God conceived in heaven in order that humanity may be brought to nearness with God, and receive the same Holy Spirit who came to Mary. We are invited to wake up from Joseph’s glorious dreams and see the face of God.
Dr Joseph O’Hanlon.
1. The whole sordid story is told in the Second Book of Samuel, chapters 13 to 19.
2. The sentences between the brackets are not in the Lectionary. The reading ends, he took his wife to his home...