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A Virgin will Conceive ...

Thursday, December 20, 2012
Isa 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-6; Lk 1:26-38. Also Mt 1:18-25.

It is interesting that the liturgy places the reading of Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘a young woman / virgin is with child and will bear a son’ with Luke’s account of the annunciation to Mary of the conception of Jesus. Luke’s text makes clear that Mary is a virgin, and, interestingly in view of her impending marriage to Joseph, that she sees her virginity as a problem to the fulfilment of the promise of motherhood of the messiah made her by the angel (v 32-34). Luke’s account goes on to make clear that it is God himself who will directly bring about the conception of the child in her womb, without the intervention of a man, God’s action described in terms taken from the way God visits and fills his temple with his presence (v 35). The child will thus be holy in a special way and called Son of God. (Overtones of the language of the act of divine creation may be present as well.) But commentators in general do not think that Luke is actively drawing on Isaiah for his account. It is Matthew that makes explicit and very significant use of it, seeing the text as referring both to the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary and the fact that the child is properly called or at least described as Emmanuel, God-with-us’ (Mt 1:18-25).

Why does Luke seem to omit it but Matthew use it? The decision of both authors may be based on a similar knowledge of the linguistic detail and history of the Isaian text. Their respective choices may well highlight important but different features of the nativity events. The Hebrew version of Isaiah uses the word ‘‘almah’ which in the Old Testament refers to a young woman who has reached puberty and thus is ready for marriage. The stress does not fall on her virginity though that would be expected or hoped for in such societies. The Greek Septuagint (LXX), a later translation but in common use at the time of Jesus, in Isa 7:14 uses ‘parthenos’ in Isa 7, a term that means a (young) woman of marriageable age but it has far more stress on virginity. The Hebrew text does not explicitly speak of or point to a virginal conception since a natural conception could be a sign of divine blessing. The LXX allows for a more supernatural interpretation of the sign of ‘the virgin who will conceive’, but does not linguistically demand it.

But there was no clear expectation of such a supernatural conception of the Messiah, nor of a divine incarnation, at the time of Mary. These were new actions of God in history, unprecedented. Certainly in the light of them it was possible to read the Jewish Scriptures in a new and truer way – the true way – and see the prediction of Jesus in Jewish prophecy, symbol, divine action and liturgical rite. But that interpretation was undertaken precisely in the light of this new and direct and decisive act of God. (As St Paul put it, for example in Eph 1, Jesus was the mystery, hidden from the beginning, if then prepared for, but only made known in his own day.) Jesus unlocks the secret and obscure meaning of the Scriptures that precede him.

It is because of this newness that in Luke’s account Mary legitimately questions God (v 34): she is not expecting a virginal conception. And it is her simple but committed acceptance of its announcement to her, an act without precedent in Jewish history, that points to the greatness of her faith (v 38). Luke’s ‘non-use’ of the Isaian text emphasises this point.

Matthew does things differently. In the light of the fact of the Virgin Birth he uses the providential creation of the LXX as God’s way of furnishing, or at least flagging up, a prophecy about the virginal conception and Incarnation and thus of showing that they did fulfil Scripture. In this way he commends them for belief to Jewish and other audiences.

But let us focus on Luke’s text, which is today’s gospel reading, and on the extraordinary faith of Mary. It is a faith born of and sustained by divine grace. It was God’s gift to her but was also really her own, risk-filled, but loving response. She is stepping out boldly in faith, believing God can bring about her pregnancy and make the child the saviour of Israel, the fulfilment in person of the temple and its liturgy. As such she accepts and commits herself to this new and decisive act of God in history which is the Incarnation.

We are called to enter into the faith of Mary, so that Jesus may be formed in us, born of us (as we have first been born of him), so that we may show him, he who is God-among-us, to the world of today. Like Mary we are directly reliant on grace for this: the flesh cannot instigate it (cf Jn 1:13). In this all Christians are called to be virgins, but ones that bring forth Jesus. May we bring forth Jesus and show him to others this Christmas!

Andrew Brookes OP


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