Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus shows it as the perfect fulfilment of the Prophet Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz in the first reading (Isa 7: 10 – 14). Matthew is putting before us a vital theme of Christian faith: that Jesus is the living presence of God in the human world.
Today’s Gospel is concerned with the circumstances surrounding the conception of Jesus and the names given to this special baby. The passage focuses on the divine origin of Jesus, explained in the saying “child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” and with his role as saviour of all humankind, proclaimed in the name Joseph is to give him.
This child is distinct and unique. He is more than the accumulated best of his ancestors. The developing story tells how this child will act distinctly as the agent of the divine Spirit and manifest in a unique way the power of God.
Matthew puts forward Joseph as a representative figure who welcomes the coming of Emmanuel. He is struck with profound humility at the mystery of what God’s action may require of him and he doubts himself. Joseph’s thoughts of “dismissing her privately” were not prompted by suspicion that Mary had been unfaithful – he already knew that ‘she was with child from the Holy Spirit”. The dream brings with it the reassurance that he too could stand in the presence of the divine mystery, that he was not outside the providence of what God was doing; that God’s grace will support him in fulfilling his mission.
If the conception calls attention to Jesus’ special place in history, so also does his name. Joseph, acting the part of the legal father, is directed by the messenger to call the child “Jesus”. For non-Jewish readers like us, the narrator adds an interpretation “for he will save his people from their sins”.
The name, together with the title “Messiah” alerts us to the peculiar role the infant is to play throughout his ministry. He is the one who does what only God can do. Where Jesus is, God is there, present with the people of faith and the reassurance of Divine forgiveness.
For ourselves there is the opportunity to reflect on the name given to us by our parents, acknowledging the hope and joy they saw in our births and the expectations they nurtured in us to be bearers of God’s love to all. When we feel we are not living up to a life lived in Christ we can call on the intercession of St Joseph, that we too can stand in the presence of the divine mystery once again celebrated in Christ’s nativity and cry out “‘Come Emmanuel’ – God is with us!”
Fr Stephen Berecz