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December 18 2016 (A) Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Emmanuel! God (and Christ) is with us always

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Isaiah 7:10-14). The maiden is with child. This passage is chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading on the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, a Gospel text in which the text of the prophecy of Isaiah is cited. The background to today’s reading, and of the important prophecy it contains, can be read in the biblical context of the book of Isaiah, and it merits paying attention to it. The scene is situated in Jerusalem, in the kingdom of Judah, about the year 735 BC. The Assyrian empire (with its capital at Nineveh, near present-day Mosul in Iraq) was pressing westwards to destroy the minor states of Palestine and the surrounding areas and absorb them into the Assyrian Empire. One of those states was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel had formed a coalition with Damascus and other small states to make a united stand against Assyria, and had planned to bring the kingdom of Judah into their alliance, if needs be by dethroning the reigning king Ahaz and replacing him with a puppet king of their liking. It was then that God told the prophet Isaiah to go to the king and tell him keep clear of this alliance and not to fear their threats. There was a special covenant between God and the house of David. God would give Ahaz a sign of his own choosing to convince him of the divine protection. The Davidic king refused the prophet’s offer and in reply Isaiah uttered the prophecy we have in today’s text. Instead of the sign refused by the Davidic king Ahaz, God himself will give a sign. An unidentified young woman is stated to be pregnant, with child, will give birth to a son, and will call his name Emmanuel, a Hebrew name which means “God-is-with-us”. The birth, and naming, are a sign that the Davidic dynasty and will be safe. The sign was intended for Ahaz in the first instance, and the unnamed young woman was probably Ahaz’ wife. But this was a solemn prophecy about the house of David and its future and was not limited to that moment in history. Like other prophecies concerning the house of David, and heirs to David yet to come, this one would be fulfilled by God, in God’s own good time. The Greek rendering of the Hebrew word translated as “young woman” is “virgin”, a rendering cited by Matthew. The prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, and this text is aptly cited by Matthew, as we see in today’s Gospel reading.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 23[24]). Let the Lord enter! He is the king of glory.

Second Reading (Romans 1:1-7). Jesus Christ, descendant of David, Son of God. The Letter to the Romans is the latest of Paul’s genuine letters that have come down to us. Paul wrote his other letters to churches founded by himself. Paul was in no way connected with the foundation of the church in Rome, which probably originated in Christians and missionaries from Palestine and Antioch. The Roman Christian community had both Jewish and gentile non-Jewish members. When his missionary work in the East was drawing to a close Paul decided to move west, and to Rome. Although the Roman Church would have known of Paul by hearsay, Paul introduces himself to them at the beginning of this letter. It is a solemn opening, probably containing some early brief credal statements on Christ. Paul first states his credentials as an apostle of the gentiles, especially chosen by God to proclaim the good News about Jesus, the Son of God. Paul contrasts Jesus “according to the flesh” (Jerusalem Bible, “the human nature he took”) and “according to the spirit of holiness” (“the spirit of holiness that was in him”). In his human, earthly, existence, Jesus was descended from David. Jesus was Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead. God had exalted him. As risen Lord Jesus sent his spirit on the Church, the Spirit of holiness. Is was from this risen Lord that Paul received his mission as apostle to preach among the gentiles (pagan nations) the obedience of faith, that is to have all believers dedicate their entire lives to God and live according to his will as revealed in the good news. By this obedience of faith believers belong to Jesus Christ.

The Gospel (Matthew 1:18-24). Jesus is born of Mary who was betrothed to Joseph, son of David. Matthew’s aim in this reading is to state that Jesus was conceived virginally. Joseph was not his father, and he had no earthly father. The reading first gives the background to this mystery. Mary was betrothed, engaged, to Joseph, and this was regarded already as marriage, and could be terminated only by formal divorce. Conception by any other than the future husband would be regarded as adultery, with the corresponding penalty. Hence the worries of Joseph a just, righteous, man of honour. His worries may have arisen from the fact that he could not accept as his own a child that was not his. Or also that public divorce would destroy Mary’s reputation. The message from heaven, through the angel, ends his worries. Although not Jesus’ natural father, Joseph is addressed as “son of David”, and through him Jesus will be regarded in like fashion. Joseph is to call the child’s name “Jesus”. In Hebrew this would mean saviour, redeemer. Jews would also have awaited the coming of a son of David who would be a military saviour, or teacher of the true meaning of the Law. Mary’s son will save his people from their sins. By reason of Isaiah’s prophecy he will also be called Emmanuel, “God-is-with-us”. Thus at his conception and in his final departing words Jesus is Emmanuel, “God-is-with-us" -- “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Emmanuel! God (and Christ) is with us always

The title given to the son of David in Isaiah’s prophecy, repeated again in Matthew’s Gospel narrative on Jesus’ conception, calls for reflection: “He shall be called Emmanuel”. As Jesus reminded his disciples, as he commissioned them to proclaim the good news to all nations, before departing from them, God and Jesus are to be so regarded until the end of time. During his lifetime, in Galilee, Jesus reminded his disciples to be aware of his presence with them, on the Sea of Galilee. Similarly at the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that Satan has sought to sift all of them like wheat, but Jesus had prayed for Simon Peter that his faith might not fail, and that he in turn might strengthen his brethren.

There are different ways of “being with”, just as there are different kinds of difficulties and of temptations. In his Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel Jesus lays stress on the problems and trials that his disciples and followers will have to face after he has left them from a hostile world with little sympathy for what he stands for. On earth with them he was as a paraclete, an advocate, a defender, strengthening their resolve to be faithful to him and his mission. After his departure he would send them another Paraclete, advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would convince them and the world that the victory had been his, Christ’s, through his passion, death and resurrection. This advocate, the Holy Spirit, would convince the consciences of believers of Jesus victory and give them the strength to continue in their belief and their mission to the world. This, too, is an example of God’s presence as Emmanuel. Christ is present with each individual. He is also present in other ways, in the sacraments and in the reading of scripture in liturgical services, when it is Christ himself who is proclaiming his Gospel. Irish religious tradition and devotion summed up belief in Emmanuel, God-with-us in its expression: “God’s help is nearer than the door”.