“You must name him Jesus” (Mt 1:21)
4th Sunday of Advent – Year A
We are all aware of the annunciation of angel Gabriel to Mary. When we think of annunciation, we only think of the annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:26-38). It is interesting to note that there are at least two other annunciation stories in the gospels, prior to the birth of Jesus. These two stories are actually about annunciation to two men. The first is in the Gospel of Luke that speaks of the annunciation to Zachariah (Lk 1:10-23) of the birth of John. The second story is in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew does not have an annunciation to Mary. Only Luke has it. Matthew, on the other hand, has a story of annunciation to Joseph. It is this story that we heard read in the gospel of today. Despite this focus on Joseph, it is important to note that in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew has already stated that Jesus was born of Mary. He says, “… and Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary; of her was born Jesus who is called Christ” (Mt 1:16).
What could the story that we heard read in the gospel of today mean? Its significance could be explored possibly at three levels. What did the event mean for Joseph? What does it say about the mission of Jesus? And finally, what could it mean for us today?
Joseph’s Mission: From a Righteous Distancing to a Risky Participation
The beginning of the gospel text of today describes Joseph as a man of honour, or as some other translations would have it, ‘a righteous man’. When he learnt that Mary was expectant, Joseph would have had two options. Option one: to expose Mary to the chief rabbi of the village and have her stoned to death for her act of adultery. This would be a just act in front of the law. And Joseph would have himself clean – righteous! Option two: to hurry with the marriage and take responsibility for the pregnancy of Mary. Now if people came to know the details surrounding this hurry they might question his righteousness because he is associating himself with something fishy. But Joseph wants to go for a third option and still remain righteous: “to divorce her informally.”
In front of God, this would imply that Joseph would be outside the plan of salvation. But God wants to drag him in. God has a mission for Joseph. Joseph is told that Mary is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is a virgin, as such her first love is God. She is with child as a result of an embrace of God – the Spirit. Joseph has to take her as his wife. And though he is not the biological father, he has the right to name him. By this act he will have a responsibility over the child in front of the society. Thus he is going to play a risky role of participating in the plan of God. Risky, because he is asked to get messed up with something that seems unrighteous. Risky, also because Joseph now has a duty towards a situation for which he was not responsible.
Jesus’ Mission: What’s in a Name?
Joseph is also told what type of a child is going to be born: “She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). This prophesy has the same structure as the annunciation stories in the Hebrew scriptures of some extraordinary births: the birth of Isaac (Gen 18:9-15), of Samson (Judg 13:2-7), of Samuel (1Sam 1:9-18), as well as the son of Isaiah (Is 7:1-16; 8:1-4) which Matthew quotes in the gospel text of today.
As it was the tradition, the name of the child will describe the uniqueness of the child. “You must name him Jesus” (Mt 1:21). ‘Jesus’ is the Greek version of the Hebrew ‘Yeshua’, which means, ‘one who saves’, or simply, ‘the deliverer’; therefore, the angel goes on, “he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” He will save them from their hamartia (Greek for sin): their inability to reach the target – being one with God. This will be the mission of Jesus: to assure the people that God still loves this – God is with them, and thus also to enable them to be one with God.
Our Mission: Recognize the Immanuel
Matthew, as is characteristic of him, goes on to quote from the Isaiah 7:14 to show how Jesus was the fulfillment of the words of the prophets. “Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’” (Mt 1:22-23). By this Matthew wants to show that God has not abandoned his people.
The feast that we are going to celebrate reminds us very powerfully that the God we believe in is a God who became one of us. He made himself Immanuel. He wanted to show us that He was not yet tired of us. He took a form that we could see and touch. And this is what I would like to conclude the reflection with.
It is said that when St Francis of Assisi gave instructions to one John Velitta in the town of Greccio in Italy to prepare the first crib in 1293, with real animals and people, Francis seems to have said: “If you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes.”
How marvelously true is the mystery that we celebrate this week? God takes on a human form so that we might see Him with our own eyes. Let the celebration of Christmas, then, rekindle in us our own deep desire for God: to hear, see and touch Him.
“The Lord has made known his salvation.
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God,
Shout to the Lord all the earth, ring out your joy” (Ps 97).
Fr Franco Pereira, S.D.B.