Matthew 1:18-24. 18 Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. 20 Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. 21 She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. 25 He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.
Context. Our gospel is the traditional reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent (year A) and thus, in addition to its biblical context, this reading also carries a seasonal meaning.
A Seasonal Context. The Fourth Sunday of Advent always tells part of the story that just precedes the birth of Christ. These familiar episodes set the stage for one of the Bible’s best-known passages, the story of Christmas. This reading, as well as the gospels for the 4th Sunday in Advent in the other years, aligns well with the readings of the seven days of Advent that immediately precede Christmas. Not only do the readings for the daily Masses just before Christmas include the beginnings of the Gospel infancy narratives (Matthew 1 on Dec. 17-18; Luke 1 on Dec. 19-24), but we again get to hear the traditional “O Antiphons,” at Mass.
Most familiar these days from the popular hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the “O Antiphons” are more than a thousand years old. Curiously, the first verse of the familiar hymn is actually the last of the traditional “O Antiphons” while the other verses of the hymn (in the order printed in most hymnals) correspond to the Antiphons for Dec. 17 to 22:
Dec. 17: O Sapientia / O Wisdom from Evening Prayer
Verse 2: O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high from the popular hymn
Dec. 18: O Adonai / O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel
Verse 3: O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might
Dec. 19: O Radix Jesse / O Flower of Jesse’s stem
Verse 4: O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem
Dec. 20: O Clavis David / O Key of David
Verse 5: O Come, Thou Key of David, come
Dec. 21: O Oriens / O Radiant Dawn
Verse 6: O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high
Dec. 22: O Rex Gentium / O King of all the nations
Verse 7: O Come, Desire of nations…
Dec. 23: O Emmanuel / O Emmanuel
Verse 1: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
The gospel readings for the 4th Sunday, the gospels for those weekday readings, and the “O Antiphons” all begin to answer the question of Advent: who is coming? Our gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent (Year A) provides it contribution to the larger answer: Jesus Christ (v.18), son of Mary (v.18), adopted son of Joseph (v.20), son of David (v.20), named Jesus (v.21), the one who will save his people from their sins (v.21), and Emmanuel…God with us (v.22).
A New Testament Context. Our passage follows immediately upon Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17) – which notably says in v.9, “Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.” Our gospel and Matthew’s genealogy are intentionally connected by Matthew. Our translation in Mt 1:1 is: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A more literal translation would be: “A book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”
Matthew could have used other words for “genealogy” or “birth,” but he used this word, which is also the Greek title of the first book of scriptures. Similar wording is in the LXX at Gn 2:4 “This is the book of the genesis of heaven and earth;” and in 5:1 “This is the book of the genesis of human beings. In the day God made Adam, according to the image of God he made him.” Matthew intended a connection between these two sections of chapter 1 and with the first book of scriptures. This is a new beginning, a new creation.
In this new creation there is something different. Throughout verses 1-16a, Matthew has used egennesen 39 times (aorist, active of gennao, which means: when used of the male role = “to beget,” or “to become the father of”; of the female role: “to give birth”). In 16b the grammar changes. He does not write, “Joseph begat Jesus,” which we might expect after 39 times; but rather he uses egennethe (aorist, passive of gennao) “the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.” We already have a hint that there is something different about this birth from all those that went before.
The genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel establishes Jesus’ place within the Jewish tradition. Jesus is the son of Abraham and of David as well as the continuation of David’s line after the exile of 587 B.C.E. Israel’s history is traced from its beginning with Abraham (v.2), through its high point with King David (v.6) and its low point in the Babylonian Exile (v.11), to its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah (v.16). Thus the genealogy of Jesus stresses the continuity of Jesus with the great figures of God’s people (“son of Abraham … son of David”), and it also prepares for the very irregular and indeed unique birth narrated in verses to follow.