The chapter of Isaiah that includes this morning’s first reading opens,
In the days of king Ahaz of Judah (about 730 BCE), King Rezin of Aram (Syria) and King Pekah of Israel went to attack Jerusalem, … When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go meet Ahaz, … and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands… who plotted evil against you…Thus says the Lord God:
It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass.…
If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all.
God promised Ahaz that the alliance would not defeat Judea if he had faith. God then offered to perform a great act to validate his promise. This is the point at which the actual first reading for December 18th (Isaiah 7:10-16) begins.
The Lord spoke to Ahaz, (through the mouth of Isaiah) saying, 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.
This was false piety. Ahaz had become smug and dissolute. Social injustice prevailed in his kingdom before and during his time (see Isaiah 6). Ahaz thought he knew better. He doubted the prophet and the word of God. Nevertheless Isaiah persisted on God’s behalf.
Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us)…Before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Ahaz rejected the prophecy with disastrous consequences for his kingdom… though Jerusalem itself would be spared. Meanwhile, the kingdoms of Israel and Syria would be destroyed, which was itself a sign that Ahaz should not have feared the alliance.
Though Ahaz refused to accept the sign, it remained as a divine pledge of deliverance. The early Christian communities saw in it a promise of Jesus’ birth. God with us would signify salvation.
(This translation uses the Hebrew young woman, rather than the Greek, virgin, which appears in the Septuagint. Both words indicate a person who was probably in her teens and not sexually active.)
The prophecy, itself, invites questions. How did the birth of a child relate to the threat? Wasn’t birth a natural event? How would this be a sign of God’s presence? How would Ahaz have become aware?
It seems that God had a preferential bias for the weak and the vulnerable…such as Judea. A young woman with her firstborn was an apt symbol of this kind of vulnerability. At the same time birth was a natural renewal of life. Perhaps the prophecy was a way of saying that ‘trust in God is the right thing to do and it brings about renewal of a full spiritual life’.
The gospel for Sunday (Matt 1:18-25) introduces Joseph, his doubts and his faithful response. It begins with a dramatically understated set of verses:
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.
Matthew makes Joseph’s turmoil read like a small bump in the road in his relationship with Mary! Learning that Mary was pregnant and knowing that he was not the father probably shook Joseph to his soul. It would have left Joseph with doubts about his previous understanding of Mary and about her signs of love. After he learned the news, he likely spent sleepless nights in anguish.
For her part, Mary must have struggled about how and when to tell Joseph the truth, and about what to say, since her pregnancy was virtually impossible to understand. She may have wanted to assure him because she cared for him. At the same time she must have been frantic about what would happen to the baby and her if he dismissed her quietly. Jesus disrupted lives even before his birth.
But just when he (Joseph) 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.’
Beyond Jesus’ conception from the Holy Spirit, Joseph must have wondered about the meaning of, he will save his people from their sins.’ Joseph may have been righteous, but the thought that he would parent the one who would bring salvation was extraordinary. The layers of mystery seemed to pile up.
Matthew then puts the dream in the context of the first reading from Isaiah.
All this took place to fulfil 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, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Joseph heard an implausible explanation in his dream and believed. His doubts may have lingered but he followed through on the instructions… in dramatic contrast to king Ahaz.