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Advent: Who is this man?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In these last few days before Christmas our Gospel readings at Mass are taken, unsurprisingly, from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Both of the evangelists use an account of the circumstances surrounding Jesus's conception, birth, and infancy as  an interpretative  key for the rest of their gospels: from the very first chapters of Matthew and Luke the reader is let in on the secret  of Jesus's true identity so that we might better understand his life, words, and deeds. Yesterday for our Gospel reading we heard the famous genealogy which opens Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 1: 1-17). This genealogy is marked by a continual repetition of the same pattern over  and over  again: X was the father of Y, and Y the father of Z and so on all the way from Abraham through to King David and finally reaching Jacob the Father of Joseph: yet here the pattern is broken. We do not read: ‘and Joseph was the father of Jesus’, as the continual repetition might lead us to expect but instead: ‘Joseph [was] the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born’. Thus from the very first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel the question of Jesus’s paternity is raised. What is Jesus' relation to Joseph?

Today’s Gospel, Matthew 1: 18-25, follows immediately after this genealogy and tells the story of Jesus’s conception from Joseph’s perspective. Interestingly, Matthew takes Jesus’s Divine paternity for granted. Mary, he tells us very briefly, conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18): Jesus, then, is Son of God. Matthew swiftly moves the narrative on to focuses his attention instead on establishing that Jesus is also Son of David, a legitimate heir of the line that he has just traced through his genealogy. This explains Matthew’s focus on Joseph rather than Mary: the Davidic line could only be transmitted through the Father. 

The doctrine of the Virgin birth, then, requires that the place of Jesus in David’s line be secured by adoption by one who is already a ‘son of David’. Joseph grafted Jesus into his line by naming him (Matthew 1:25). Names in the Jewish tradition were understood to have a kind of vocational power: they served to define the child’s identity and thus destiny. It was the father’s privilege to name his child. In so doing the father acknowledged that the child was born in wedlock and identified the child as his own. Joseph, we read, did not choose Jesus’s name, this was given to him by the angel, but by following the angels instructions and naming him he claimed Jesus as one of his own on behalf of David’s house and on behalf of humanity. Thus Jesus’s dual paternity is affirmed: Jesus, ‘God dwelling with us’ (Matthew 1:23) or in popular etymology ‘The Lord saves’, becomes invested with the significance of the house of David. Matthew sees in this an encouragement to interpret Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, in the light of the promises made to Israel and the promises made to David: Jesus both fulfils the promises of the Old Testament and illuminates them. 

Matthew offers us, then, in the opening chapter of his Gospel, some strong clues as to how to interpret the narrative that follows: Jesus is both Son of God and Son of David, he both fulfills and interprets the history of Israel. Matthew also offers us, in his portrait of Joseph, a model of how to receive the Gospel. Joseph, we are told, is a righteous man (Matthew 1:19): in other words he was a faithful observer of the law. This law, it was understood at the time, would not allow him to take as his wife a woman that had been violated or seduced. Once he was aware of Mary’s pregnancy he had no choice but to divorce her. Yet his desire to ‘send her away quietly’ (Matthew 1:19) showed that he was merciful. He did not, for example, insist on a public trial in attempt to identify the father of Mary’s child so as to avoid the obligation of paying what he would have pledged to Mary in case of divorce. Instead he planned to shield her as far as possible from public disgrace and risk it being publicly assumed that he was in fact the guilty party in this divorce. The man chosen to be Jesus’s human father, then, was merciful and just. In such a heart, a place for the Lord was already prepared.In such a home, the Lord could make his dwelling.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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