Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 18, 2016

First Reading Commentary
If you're a student of the ancient biblical languages, this is the type of Reading that could cause you to abruptly abandon your studies and decide that your native tongue is quite sufficient for scriptural studies.  This Reading has been and continues to be a source of theological debate; and the topic always seems to pop up around this time every year in the media.  The problem is that the ancient Hebrew word used here for "virgin" also could mean "young woman".  Supporters of the Virgin birth obviously like the "virgin" translation and equally obvious is that "young woman" is the preference of those who deny the Virgin Birth and the Divinity of Jesus.  The Hebrew word in question is "almah" which more precisely means "unmarried maiden" which has led to the translation of "virgin" because of the strict ancient Hebrew moral code.  At the heart of the debate, though, is the Hebrew word "betulah" which more accurately means "virgin".  "Betulah" is used several times in Isaiah which naturally raises the question of why it wasn't used in this passage. 

Absent from this English translation proclaimed at American liturgies is the word "behold".  In the ancient texts as well as in various modern translations the announcement of a son named Emmanuel is preceded by the word "behold".  And "behold" in ancient usage is designed to demand your attention because something of great importance is about to be announced.  This is some added ammo for believers of the Virgin birth because "Emmanuel", although popularly translated as "God with us", in Hebrew usage implies "God's omnipotent aid" and thus the "son" referenced in this Reading seems to be the source of deliverance. 

In this coming weekend's Gospel, the writer, Saint Matthew, explains to his readers that Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and makes use of this prophecy from Isaiah to show that it has been fulfilled.  Matthew may have had first hand knowledge that Jesus was born of Mary who was a Virgin.  Minimally, the story of the Virgin birth was told to him; but perhaps more important is his use of this prophecy.  If the author of Matthew's Gospel is the apostle Matthew, then that may give us a clue as to why he used this prophecy from Isaiah.  Matthew, also known as Levi, was employed by the Romans as a tax collector.  As an employee of the Romans, he most likely had some knowledge of the Latin language and if he's a writer of the New Testament, most assuredly he was knowledgeable in the Greek language.  In Greek, the Hebrew word "almah" translates as "virgin".  In Latin, "almah" translates not only as "virgin", "young woman" and "unmarried maiden", but also has the distinction of meaning "holy woman".  This is not true of the Hebrew word "betulah".  Is there any woman more deserving of this distinction than Mary? 

Laying all of this aside, we are a people of faith and most of the truths we cling to in our faith are not supported by indisputable evidence.  We walk by faith, see with the eyes of faith and trust our faith; and it is this faith of ours which we boldly profess in the Creed.  It doesn't matter how many articles, books or documentaries dispute the authenticity of Jesus Christ; we as faithful Christians know that if death couldn't eliminate Him two-thousand years ago - nothing else will ever succeed because He is Almighty God.

Second Reading Commentary
This is one of those Readings where it behooves us to prepare for Mass by looking over the Readings ahead of time because if during Mass is the first time you hear this Reading, you would be fortunate to comprehend it. 

This is the beginning of Saint Paul's letter to the Romans in which he makes use of the Jewish, Greek and Roman custom of beginning correspondence by including a sender [Paul, an apostle], an addressee [to all the beloved of God in Rome], and a greeting [Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ].  Paul does break away from tradition, however, by filling up space with Christian thoughts and ideas in between the sender, addressee and greeting; and he may have been the first to do this.  What's most important about this letter is that it contains the basics of early Christian teachings: 1) The Gospel is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.  2) Jesus descended from David and is the Son of God.  3) Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead. 

Paul expresses his allegiance to Christ by calling himself a slave.  He also makes it clear that his apostleship comes from Jesus.  And finally, he proclaims the purpose of his apostleship: To bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.  Paul was not one to back down from adversity and what he doesn't do in this Reading is offer proof that Jesus is from the lineage of David which most likely means he was unaware of anyone questioning it.  Of course, what Paul wrote to the Romans as far as what they're called to be is not exclusive to the inhabitants of ancient Rome; we are all called to belong to Jesus Christ, called to be among the beloved of God, and called to be holy.

Gospel Commentary
Saint Joseph exhibits exemplary sanctity.  He surely felt betrayed before he knew that the Holy Spirit was the Source of this Child, and yet he had no intentions of humiliating Mary or subjecting her to public scrutiny.  There's nothing in the text that suggests that Mary had any inkling as to what Joseph's intentions were, and so, we might conclude that Joseph even spared Mary's feelings by not divulging his own inner emotions. 

This Gospel passage is preceded by the genealogy of Christ and is careful not to express that Joseph begot Jesus: "Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, Who is called Christ" (Matthew 1:16).  Since that verse could leave newcomers to the Jesus story scratching their heads, the text of this weekend's Gospel explains the circumstances. 

Joseph's appearance in this Gospel is apparent for two reasons: First, to show his legal paternity which justifies his part in the genealogy; and secondly, to show his virginal relationship with Mary and his ultimate conviction of the miraculous conception.  In ancient Jewish law, betrothal honored the status of husband and wife.  Conceiving a child during this period was legitimate but the marriage was considered incomplete until the husband formally took his bride into his home; and the husband was free to do this at any time. 

It's assumed that Joseph was unaware of Mary's condition until after she returned from visiting Elizabeth (cf. Luke 1:39-56) but before he took her into his home.  It's unclear as to how Joseph found out about Mary's condition.  Since Joseph had decided to quietly divorce Mary, that's pretty clear evidence he was unwilling to acknowledge the Child as his own.  It was his supernatural dream which changed his course of action.  This Child, although not biologically his, was now his more than any other man could lay claim to because Jesus was the miraculously conceived Child of Joseph's betrothed.  The name Jesus or Yeshua means "Yahweh is Salvation" and the text is clear that the purpose of His birth is to save us from our sins.