Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (18 December 2022)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (18 December 2022)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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. But just when he 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.” All this took place to fulfill 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 (Matthew 1:18-24 – NRSV).

Introductory notes


A similar passage is found in Luke 1:2-7. However, Luke focuses on Mary whilst Matthew focuses on Joseph.

One commentator makes the following observation concerning this passage in Matthew: “To appreciate this birth-story one must first have some basic information about Jewish marriage laws and customs, divine communication through angels and dreams, the announcement-of-birth pattern, and the use of biblical quotations in Matthew’s Gospel” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 36). In other words there is nothing straightforward about this text. Fundamentalists beware!

In Jewish life of Jesus’ day, marriage was seen as a civil contract rather than a religious covenant or “sacrament”. Engagement or betrothal was taken very seriously indeed, as is indicated in Deuteronomy 20:7: “Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” And again in Deuteronomy 22: 23-24: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

Rabbinic custom set the minimum age at which one could get married at thirteen for the male and twelve for the female. The marriage would be arranged by the elders of the families.

The engagement usually took place at the home of the bride and there might by a year or more before the wedding actually took place. Thus Matthew says Joseph and Mary were engaged but not yet wed. Mary’s pregnancy raises the specter of Deuteronomy 22: 23-24 coming into play – see above.


before they lived together: “The OT law treated betrothal as creating a legal state of marriage, with attendant possibilities of adultery, divorce, and widowhood. Despite this, during the betrothal the wife continued to be the responsibility of her father for a maximum of twelve months (provided she had reached puberty) prior to the marriage ceremony. In this interim period sexual relations were not considered proper, though no doubt they did at times occur. συνελθεῖν could refer to setting up house together or to sexual intimacy, but if the former is intended, there is an implicit reference as well to the latter since it is the absence of sexual intimacy between the couple which causes Mary’s pregnancy to present itself to Joseph in the particular way it does” (J Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005, 92-93).

Matthew is telling us that Jesus is, according to Jewish custom, the legal father of Jesus. But he also makes it clear that he is not the biological father.

from the Holy Spirit: The Greek word is pneumatos from pneuma meaning literally “wind” or “spirit”. The Hebrew word ruah is generally translated as “spirit” – see for example Genesis 1:1-2: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” See also Genesis 6:3, Psalm 104:30 and Job 33:4. Ruah – meaning either wind or breath or spirit – is generally used in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures when speaking of the Spirit of God. In Greek the word becomes pneuma and in Latin spiritus. Matthew is saying that Jesus’ conception is the result of the direct creating action of God’s ruah.

a righteous man: The Greek word dikaios may also be translated “just”. Both “righteous” and “just” most obviously suggest a Jew who is faithful to Torah. Actually, the concept is much richer than that. Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, writes: “There is absolutely no concept in the Old Testament with so central a significance for all the relationships of human life as that of sdq (pronounced ‘tsadaq’). It is the standard not only for our relationship to God, but also for our relationships to our fellows, reaching right down to the most petty wranglings – indeed, it is even the standard for our relationship to the animals and to our natural environment. Sdq can be described, without more ado, as the highest value in life, that upon which all life rests when it is properly ordered. …. its content seemed to be given by the translation in the Vulgate (justitia) …. a man’s proper conduct over against an absolute ethical norm, a legality which derives its norm from the absolute idea of justice. From this absolute norm, it was supposed, issued absolute demands and absolute claims. In social respects justice so understood watches with complete impartiality over these claims and takes care that each man gets his own (justitia distributiva). Thus, the only remaining question was, what is the norm that the Old Testament presupposes? …. As we now see, the mistake lay in seeking and presupposing an absolute ideal ethical norm, since ancient Israel did not in fact measure a line of conduct or an act by an ideal norm, but by the specific relationship in which the partner had at the time to prove himself true. ‘Every relationship brings with it certain claims upon conduct, and the satisfaction of these claims, which issue from the relationship and in which alone the relationship can persist, is described by our term sdq.’ The way in which it is used shows that ‘sdq is out and out a term denoting relationship, and that it does this by referring to a real relationship between two parties …. and not to the relationship of an object under consideration to an idea. …. the just man is the one who measures up to the particular claims this relationship lays upon him’” (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume One, translated D M G Stalker, Oliver and Boyd, 1957/1973, 370-73).

Reflection – Trust

In today’s Gospel – Matthew 1:18-24 – we have one of the best known of the biblical stories. It has been acted out in countless nativity plays over the generations. It must also be one of the most frequent scenes depicted in art. Is it fair to say that, typically, in these theatrical and artistic representations, the cute wins out over the harsh and the romantic over the dangerous? Let us see if we can go “inside” this event rather than view it from a safe distance.

Sheer survival in these times is a very hazardous business. Marriage was seen to be crucial to the survival of the tribe or family. It was a legal contract before it was a religious event. Boys were allowed to marry at age 13, girls at age 12. Betrothal was a legal state comparable to marriage, though the woman remained the responsibility of her father for up to twelve months prior to the marriage ceremony. The seriousness of betrothal is reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her” (20:7).

The woman was considered at betrothal to be as a wife to the man. If she committed adultery – or was successfully accused of committing adultery – she was liable to death by stoning – Deuteronomy 22:23-24. See also John 8: 10-11.

Apart from the strict requirements of the law, there was Herod. A deeply suspicious and ruthless man, Herod stopped at nothing to achieve his ends or protect his power. For example, he had most of his family murdered including his wife, brother and three sons. Immediately after the events reported in today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us of Herod’s attempts to find the whereabouts of “the child born king of the Jews” (2:2). According to Matthew, Herod then “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). Later, Matthew tells us Herod executed John the Baptist (14:3-12).

It is an understatement to say there are serious risks here for Joseph and Mary – both from within the Jewish community and from outside it. However, in describing Joseph and Mary’s situation, Matthew reminds us of their forbears as they walked out into the wilderness at the invitation of God. So Joseph and Mary make a similar journey – 2:13-15. And the name of the child – “God is with us” – recalls the revelation on Sinai.

The risks are high but the presence of God is sure. Like the people of old, Joseph and Mary choose to trust in God. They set out! It is fair to assume they lived their entire lives with that trust.

Dealing with risks and uncertainties is part of living. There is no such thing as the risk free and utterly predictable life. Living in trust as we face the risks and uncertainties is life-enhancing. Trust in Divine Providence is part of the gift of faith.