4th Sunday of Advent: 10 things to know and share

This Sunday's readings include the prophecy of Immanuel and Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus. Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
This Sunday's readings include the prophecy of Immanuel and Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus. Here are 10 things to know and share . . . (photo: Register Files)

This Sunday the readings include the famous prophecy of Immanuel.

They proclaim God’s supremacy and our call to holiness.

They review the basics of the gospel message.

And they record the birth of Jesus and how it came about.

Here are 10 things to know and share . . .


1) What does the first reading say?

The first reading is Isaiah 7:10-14. (You can read it here.)

In this reading the prophet Isaiah confronts Ahaz, the king of Judea. He demands that Ahaz name a sign to show that the Lord will protect his kingdom. The sign can be as “high as heaven” or “as deep as sh’ol” (Hebrew, “the grave,” “the underworld”; pronounced “sh’OL”).

Ahaz, however, refuses to name a sign, saying, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Isaiah then declares:

Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.


2) What does this mean?

At the time the prophecy was given, the southern kingdom of Judah was demoralized by news that the northern kingdom of Israel was in league with Syria.

Under God’s inspiration, Isaiah wanted to strengthen the courage of the Judean king, Ahaz. He therefore offered him a sign from God to prove that he would defend the kingdom of Judea.

Ahaz, however, refused to name a sign—on the pretext that one should not “test the Lord” (Deut. 6:16).

While it is true, as a general rule, that one should not put the Lord to the test, this rule is suspended if the Lord himself invites you to do so.

As a result, Isaiah—an established prophet of the Lord—rebukes Ahaz and declares that he is not only wearing out the patience of men but is also wearing out the patience of God by refusing to name a sign.

He then declares that the Lord himself will name a sign, and gives the famous prophecy of “Immanuel.”


3) What does the prophecy of “Immanuel” mean?

To us today, the “Immanuel” prophecy is naturally understood as a reference to Christ.

However, King Ahaz lived more than seven centuries before the birth of Christ, and so the birth of Jesus could scarcely have served as a sign for him.

Scholars have therefore looked for a closer, initial fulfillment of this prophecy—one that occurred during the life of King Ahaz.

One possible fulfillment they have proposed is the birth of King Hezekiah. Others have been proposed as well.


4) Were Hezekiah or other possible fulfillments in Ahaz’s day children born of virgins?

No. The word in the Hebrew text is almah, and this does not automatically mean “virgin.”

Pope John Paul II explained:

In the Hebrew text this prophecy does not explicitly foretell the virginal birth of Emmanuel: the word used (almah), in fact, simply means "a young woman", not necessarily a virgin.

Moreover, we know that Jewish tradition did not hold up the idea of perpetual virginity, nor did it ever express the idea of virginal motherhood.


5) Is there a deeper meaning in the text that does support a virgin birth?

Yes! This is picked up on in the New Testament, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

While the word almah literally refers to a young woman, young women are usually virgins, and the Holy Spirit drew out this implication in the original text. Thus, when we take this text in light of its Christological fulfillment, it does indeed refer to a virgin birth.

Pope John Paul II explained:

The Old Testament then does not contain a formal announcement of the virginal motherhood, which was fully revealed only by the New Testament.

Nevertheless, Isaiah's prophecy (Is. 7:14) prepares for the revelation of this mystery and was construed so in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

By quoting the prophecy thus translated, Matthew's Gospel proclaims its perfect fulfillment through the conception of Jesus in Mary's virginal womb.


6) What does the responsorial Psalm say?

The responsorial Psalm is Psalm 24:1-6. (You can read it here.)

This psalm is attributed to David and proclaims that the earth is the Lord’s, for he is its creator, and he founded it upon the seas and rivers.

It asks the questions “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?”

The answer it gives is:

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.

It then announces that they will receive blessing from the Lord, “the God of their salvation.”


7) What does this mean?

Though it is not obvious to us today, this psalm contains an anti-pagan polemic.

One of the central myths of the Ba’al worshippers of the day was that the storm god Ba’al did battle against the sea/sea god Yam and defeated him, earning royal power.

This psalm subverts that myth by stressing that it was not Ba’al but Yahweh who tamed the waters and founded the earth upon them.

This anti-pagan theme also plays a role in the declaration that those “who do not lift up their souls to what is false” are worthy to ascend “the hill of the Lord” (Mt. Zion) and stand in “his holy place” (the temple).

Those who lift up their souls to what is false would be those who worship pagan deities/idols.

The psalm thus stresses the supremacy of Yahweh as the true God and the incompatibility of paganism with his worship.

This is not the only element that describes those worthy to worship God in his temple, though. They also “have clean hands and pure hearts” and “do not swear deceitfully”—that is, in addition to avoiding pagan worship, they also live moral lives in general.

All of this is relevant to us today. Overt paganism of the kind that existed in ancient Israel is not as common in Christian lands, but it remains the case that we must not put anything else in God’s place and we are called to live moral lives and grow in holiness.

As we do so, we are pleasing to God—the God of our salvation—and he bestows his blessing upon us.


8) What does the second reading say and what does it mean?

The second reading is Romans 1:1-7. (You can read it here.)

It comprises the introductory address of the book of Romans.

When the book of Romans was written, it was customary to begin letter with a formula announcing the sender of the letter and the party to whom it was addressed, followed by a greeting.

This could be a very brief formula, such as “Paul to the Romans. Greetings.”

However, instead of giving us such a brief formula, St. Paul elaborates on this basic structure, packing in many truths about himself, God’s plan, and the place of his readers in it.

The longest part is the description of himself, which runs from verses 1 to 6.

In this section, St. Paul indicates that he is a servant of Jesus Christ who has been called to be an apostle so that he might preach the gospel of God.

This is a deliberately ironic way of describing himself. Although he has high office in the Church—he is an apostle—he nevertheless regards himself as a servant (slave) of Jesus.

He then describes the fundamental content of the gospel:

It was promised beforehand through the prophets in the Scriptures.

It concerns God’s Son, Jesus.

According to the flesh, Jesus was descended from David.

But he was powerfully revealed to be God’s Son by the Spirit of Holiness (the Holy Spirit) through his resurrection from the dead.

Jesus is thus both Christ and “our Lord.”

Paul indicates that he has received grace through Jesus, as well as apostleship, so that he might bring the Gentiles to “the obedience of faith.”

This includes those to whom he is writing, “who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

In verse 7 he makes the audience explicit: “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.”

Their call to be saints not only includes the call to be among the saints in the next life but, more particularly, to be God’s holy people in this life and to grow in the holiness that is to be characteristic of those who follow God—as was stressed in the responsorial psalm.

This brief recapitulation of the gospel and the call to holiness then sets us up for the Gospel reading.


9) What does the Gospel reading say?

The Gospel reading is Matthew 1:18-24. (You can read it here.)

It contains Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. It recounts how Joseph, being a righteous man, planned to divorce Mary quietly rather than put her to public shame when she was discovered to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

An angel intervenes, though, and appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him:

“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.”

Matthew then picks up on the prophecy of Isaiah 7—the prophecy of Immanuel.

He also adds the gloss that the name “Immanuel” means “God is with us.”

Finally, Matthew records that when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel told him.


10) What does this mean?

As is well-known, the fact that Joseph and Mary were “engaged” at this time meant that they were already legally married but had not yet begun to cohabit.

This was normal at the time, and it is why Joseph would have had to divorce Mary, not simply break an engagement in the modern sense.

Pope Benedict XVI commented as follows on the statement that Joseph planned to divorce Mary when she was discovered to be with child “by the Holy Spirit”:

With regard to the child’s origin, Matthew is anticipating something here that Joseph does not yet know.

Joseph has to assume that Mary has broken their engagement, and according to the law he must dismiss her.

He has a choice between a public juridical act and a private form. He can bring Mary before the court or he can issue her with a private writ of divorce.

Joseph decides on the latter option, in order not “to put her to shame” (1:19) [Jesus of Nazareth 3: The Infancy Narratives, pp. 38-39].

(More on this subject here.)

The fact that he chose a quiet divorce rather than a public and humiliating repudiation reveals Joseph’s character as a righteous man.

Fortunately, his disposition as a righteous man also inclined him to listen to the message of the angel, so that the divorce was avoided.

Matthew also presents us with the prophecy of Immanuel—which under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he recognizes as being fulfilled in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

He also adds the clarification of the meaning of the name “Immanuel” so that the readers don’t wonder why Jesus wasn’t literally named Immanuel. (In fact, the angel had just told Joseph to name him “Jesus.”)

The reason is that we are to look to the meaning of the name: “God is with us”—which in other contexts can simply mean “God is favorable toward us” but which in this case is a reference to Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.

In Jesus, God is literally with us in incarnate form.


What Now?

If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict said about the book of Revelation.

He had a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?