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TALK ON APOSTLE AND GOSPEL

 READINGS FOR 21 DECEMBER

SUNDAY BEFORE THE NATIVITY

18th DECEMBER 2008

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The  Sunday before the Nativity which is the summit of the preparation and the herald for the feast of Christmas is placed between the 18th to the 24th December according to when Sunday falls. This year it is on this coming Sunday 21st December. According to the Synaxarion, which is a short account of the lives of the saints that celebrate on any particular day and is read everyday during Mattins, it’s says of this day that the Holy Fathers of the Church ascribed that commemoration be made of everyone found pleasing to God from Adam the first-created until Joseph the Betrothed of the Mother of God according to the genealogy that St. Luke historically mentions in his Gospel and also all the Prophets and Prophetesses.
The birth of Jesus Christ, which is imminently forthcoming, impelled the Church to go back into the holy history of the Chosen people of Israel to which St. Paul says belongs “the adoption, the glory, the commandments, the law, the worship, the promises, the forefathers and from whom Jesus Christ came according to the flesh. With her reference to this, the Church wants to honour all those righteous people who lived and died believing and waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise for the coming of the Saviour and Deliverer, in other words, the event which we Christians are preparing to celebrate in just a few days.
The Gospel reading for the day is the complete first chapter of the first Book of the New Testament, in others words, the first chapter of St. Matthew. Here Matthew gives us Christ’s genealogy and then describes in which way he was born of the Virgin Mary. The Apostle reading comes from the eleventh chapter of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews verses 9-10 and verses 32-40. The reading singles out the faith of the Patriarch Abraham and the achievements of other men of the Old Testament, which were the fruits of their vivid faith to the true God. The greatest part of the reading is read again on three other occasions during the year: the first Sunday of lent, know as Orthodox Sunday, on All-saints day and again on the first Sunday of October, when we celebrate the All-saints of Cyprus.
So let’s hear the reading:

Hebrews 11:9-10,32-40

Brethren, by faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

9)
Brethren, by faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:”
In the holy history of Israel, the Patriarch Abraham stands out, not only as its head and founder, but also as the greatest and most magnificent example of faith and unconditional and boundless trust in God. That is why St. Paul, mentioning in this chapter, which have been cut from our present reading, various heroic examples of faith found in the Old Testament, mentions with emphasis, the greatest events in Abraham’s life, which reveal his genuine and steadfast faith. The first of these events which manifests Abraham’s faith to God was his obedience to the calling from God to leave his dwelling place and travel to a distant and unknown country: (Gen. 12:1) to abandon his own country, his relatives, his friends and his possessions and worst of all to go to strange and alien land. God doesn’t even tell him the name of this land. Yet Abraham trusted God and placed himself in his hands. He entrusted himself unconditionally to God’s providence to lead him wherever it will. St. Paul, continuing his account of Abraham’s faith, singles out his patience which was the fruit of his unquestionable faith and by which he waited for the realization of God’s promise. The reading begins with Abraham reaching the land that God promised him. He lived in this land as a stranger and in tents (tabernacles means tents), and as he said himself to the Hittites “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you”. (Gen 23:4) As strangers and sojourners (in other words temporary visitors) with Abraham were also his son Isaac and later his son Jacob, whom Paul here calls heirs to the same promise. In spite of the fact that others lived and owned the land and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived as strangers in tents, without their own land and permanent dwelling, they never doubted for a moment of God’s promise that he would give them the land as an inheritance for themselves and their descendants.
10)
For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
What was it that made Abraham preserve unwavering his trust in God’s promise? This is what Paul explains in this verse. Abraham preserved his faith in God steadfast and his trust unwavering in the promises he was given, because more than the Promised Land, he waited to live in the heavenly city. As observed by an ancient interpreter, these three holy men didn’t waver in their faith because even though they received promises of land, they didn’t really care for land, but sought for higher things. If their minds were attached to the ground so to speak, their faith would have crumbled when they hadn’t received it. The city which Paul is referring to is the heavenly Jerusalem founded on an unshakable foundation with God as the architect, builder and maker. The city of David the earthly Jerusalem was only a pre-figuration of the heavenly. The heavenly Jerusalem is as St Paul says elsewhere in his Epistle to the Hebrews “the city of the living God” (Heb. 12:22) and the holy dwelling place where is found the temple not made by hands. (Heb. 9:24) With their baptism, Christians are already near to the heavenly Jerusalem for they have been made citizens of it. Thus they have no permanent earthly city, but seek the future and heavenly. We should ask ourselves “do we then foresee with passion like the Patriarchs, the heavenly city which is our true home? Do we await with desire the hour when we shall be lifted to the heavenly Jerusalem as the Lord promised us?
32)
And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:”
Paul doesn’t want to expand more on the lives and accomplishments of the Old Testament righteous people. He fears that he would not have enough time. Of course what he means is that if he was to give a detailed account of other persons and events his letter would go on for ever. Thus he doesn’t give any detailed accounts but neither does he ignore them altogether. To save time he mentions some of them quickly. Among the men that he mentions are the four Judges Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthae, the King and Prophet David and the Prophet Samuel. He mentions them only in name without given details of what they did nor does he stick to the chronological order. As we know, Gideon defeated the Midianites (Judges 6:8), Barak together with Deborah fought Sisera and the Canaanites (Judges 4:5), Samson fought against the Philistines (Judges 13:16) and Jephthae was victorious against the sons of Ammon (Judges 11:12). By highlighting these men, it doesn’t mean that Paul completely approves of everything in their lives for which some had blameworthy weaknesses. He is referring only of the faith that they showed. In other words Paul is not examining the worthiness of their actions, but only their faith. King David is mentioned because he is one of the most glorious examples of sacred history. He waited patiently for Saul’s ingratitude and unjust persecutions and bravely faced the various enemies of Israel, whom which trust in God he overcame. Before mentioning the Prophets, Paul mentions the Prophet Samuel who was the last in line of the old heroes of Israel. Samuel is one of the great prophets and the last of the Hebrew Judges. His life from his childhood was an example of faith, piety and virtue.
33-34)
Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
Who through faith subdued kingdoms refers to the men Paul mentioned earlier and in general to the accomplishments of all these righteous men which were done with the strength of their faith. Paul then lists some of these accomplishments which were well known in the Old Testament. Some of these refer to many and others only to one particular person or group. The meaning of “Wrought righteousness” could refer to many people or it could refer only to King David, who, as it says in the Old Testament, “reigned over all Israel; and executed judgment and justice unto all his people.” (2 Kings (Samuel) 8:15). But, in general all of them, whether in their private or public life, lived with the virtue of righteousness. Moreover, the faith which they showed to the commandments and promises of God contributed to the realization of everything God promised them. Stopped the mouths of lions refers to the Prophet Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den, but through God’s providence remained unharmed. It also refers to David and Samson who both killed a lion. “Quenched the violence of fire,” refers to the Three Holy Children Ananias, Azarius and Misael who King Nebuchadnezzar cast into the furnace, but again through God’s providence were not consumed by the raging flames. “Escaped the edge of the sword,” refers to three figures- the Prophet Elias who escaped being slaughtered by Jezebel, David from Saul and the Prophet Ellisaeus (Elisha) from the king of Syria. “Out of weakness were made strong,”
King Hezekiah was cured of his illness and received his strength again. But this could also refer to all the people who were held captive in Babylon. On returning to Jerusalem after their captivity they resembled, as prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel, like dry and naked bones. (Ezek. 37:11) “In wars they became strong putting to flight the enemy armies of many.” This is a reference to the leaders of Israel who fought with God on their side: Joshua, the Judges, David, the Maccabees and of course all those that returned from captivity in Babylon who achieved with the strength of their faith to overcome the neighbouring nations who opposed them and obstructed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
35)
Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:”
Faith contributed to the realization of other amazing accomplishments. Women received their dead children raised to life again. One such woman was the widow Saraphthia whose son the Prophet Elias raised from the dead and another is Somanitida whose son was brought back to life again by the prophet Elissaeus (Elisha).
Others were tortured. In the Greek the word translated as tortured is “ἐτυμπανίσθησαν” which refers to a particular type of torture. Literally it means they were drummed. It was a round organ like a drum used for torture where the person was tied with arms and legs stretched to the full. They were then beaten with bats or whips until their arms and legs were broken and then on the chest which resulted in their death. It could be that St. Paul has in mind the torture suffered by Eleazar mentioned in the 2nd book of the Maccabees (II Macc. 6:19).
All those tortured remained steadfast in their faith. They didn’t think to betray their faith so that they could escape martyrdom and achieve their release. Choosing between death for their faith or the temporary life they could have had by violating this faith in the one true God, the martyrs preferred a better resurrection, a resurrection glorious and blessed in the eternal heavenly kingdom. Or as St. John Chrysostom says on interpreting this verse: “a resurrection not like the one the children of the two women Paul is referring to, but a better one. And it is better because it has the possibility of eternal life while the first kind just brings someone back to life in this present mortal life.
36)
And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:”
Among those who suffered mocking and humiliations and beatings were the Prophet Elissaeus (Elisha) from the children of Bethel (2Kings 2:23), Samson by the Philistines (Judges 15: 25), the Jews in the time of the Maccabees from Bacchides, the Captain of King Demetrius (1 Mac. 9:26) and many more. Beatings with the whip was suffered by the Prophet Micaiah (1 Kings 22:24), Eleazar (2 Mac. 6:30), the seven Maccabee brothers (2 Mac. 7:1) and later the Apostles Peter and John. In bonds and imprisonment were cast the Prophets Jeremiah (Jer. 40:1, 44:15), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:27), Hanani (2 Chron. 16:7-10), Jonathan the Maccabee (1 Mac. 13:12) and later John the Baptist and many of the Apostles.
37)
They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;”
Nabuthai was stoned to death so that Jezebel could take his vineyard. According to tradition, the Prophet Jeremiah was also stoned to death and in the New Testament we have the stoning of the First martyr Stephen (Acts 7:58). Others were sawn asunder, in other words by the use of a saw. These were wooden saws which prolonged the suffering. The Prophet Isaiah was put to death in this way by king Manassee. “Were tempted” is a general reference and implies that they all suffered temptations. In a previous verse we heard that through faith many “escaped the edge of the sword”, but now Paul tells us that they “were slain with the sword”. St. John Chrysostom observes that both actions are worthy of praise. Faith accomplishes great things and also suffers great things. Those who were saved from the sword were saved because they believed they would be saved and those who died by the sword believed that they would achieve something far greater. By the sword died Urijah the son of Shemaiah who, as the Prophet Jeremiah tells us, prophesied in the name of the Lord (Jer. 33: 20-23), the prophet Micaiah, the priest Zacharias son of Barachias ,whom Matthew speaking to the Jews says: “ye slew between the temple and the altar (Matt. 23:35), and John the Baptist and the Apostle James the brother of John. (Acts 12:2).
Others who escaped being slain lived a life of continuous wandering in poverty and hardship. For the love of God for which they had unshakable faith, the saints not only denied comforts and luxury, but willingly accepted hardships, being in want and every kind of tribulation.
38)
Of whom the world was not worthy: they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
After referring to all the accomplishments of the Old Testament saints Paul then compares them to the world which he says was not worthy of them, but what does he actually mean. In scripture the world can mean the created world or the multitude of the people. Here it probably means both. St John Chrysostom says that if we were to put on a balance scale all the people of the world on one side and the saints on the other, the weight would fall on the side of the saints because they have far greater worth. The other interpretation is that the created world is not worthy to contain such praiseworthy men: only heaven can contain and appreciate their holiness. Holiness and virtue surpass in value any other reality of this world. What remains and has immeasurable worth in the eyes of God is the faith and patience of the saints, the blood of the martyrs, the tears of the ascetics and the sweat of the righteous. Having then compared the saints to the world, Paul returns again to their heroic accomplishments and mentions the wandering life many lived, either through persecution or through asceticism in the deserts and mountains.
39-40)
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
Through faith the righteous of the Old Testament were found pleasing before God, but they didn’t receive the pleasures of the heavenly things which God had promised them. They lived with the expectation of the fulfilment of the divine promise of the Messiah’s salvation, but they were not found worthy to see the fulfilment of this promise. Why? Because God foresaw something better for us. So that they should not appear more advantaged than us, the Lord appointed a one and common time for the crowning of everyone; for the righteous of the Old Testament and the saints of the New Testament. Salvation is of course for everyone, but we are in fact in a more advantaged position than the Old Testament saints because we live in an age where Christ the Messiah has already come and salvation is for us a reality and also because the time of waiting until the Last Judgement and our entrance into the Kingdom of God is for us much shorter. Now someone might ask “is it fair for them who engaged in the struggles of faith and virtue long before us to wait for us to be crowned together?” St. John Chrysostom answers. God didn’t do them an injustice, but rather has honoured us because they also are waiting for their brothers. If we are all one body, it will bring about a much greater pleasure to this body when all its members are crowned and glorified together rather than crowning each one separately. God’s dispensation for the salvation of the world is a mystery which surpasses logical interpretation: it is a mystery of faith and expectation which has not yet come to a conclusion. Both the Old Testament righteous and the New Testament saints live with the hope of the new and glorious coming of the Lord and the desire for entry into the great fatherland on high.
Having then heard the interpretation of the Apostle reading it is obvious why the fathers of the Church chose it to be read on the Sunday before Christmas, because it represents all the Old Testament saints who in faith lived with the expectation of the coming of the Messiah; the fulfilment of which we will celebrate on Christmas day. The Gospel reading as mentioned in the beginning is the first chapter of St. Matthew and this again begins with the Old Testament figures beginning from Abraham up to the birth of Jesus Christ. Thus Matthew gives us the genealogy of Jesus as far back as Abraham. We have spoken of this genealogy before and compared it also with the genealogy given by St. Luke in the first talk we had on the history of mankind and the Church. The talk is on the website so I think to save time we will skip the genealogy and go directly to the rest of the reading. We will pick up the reading from verse 17.

St Matthew 1:16

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias; And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon: And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

17-25

17) So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS”.

“So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.”
Here Matthew has divided the genealogy into three sets of fourteen generations. I don’t think they are supposed to represent some magical figure. There has been interpretations saying that 7 is the divine number and 14 is a result of multiplying this number by two or that it is the numeric worth of David’s name in Hebrew. What Matthew is probably referring to is the Kingdom of Israel. From Abraham to David is fourteen generations and Israel saw its first king. From David to the carrying away into Babylon are another fourteen generations where Israel saw the abolition of the royal throne and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations where Israel once again received the one true King of Israel.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise:”

This is actually a continuance of the previous line. The genealogy prepared the way for what is to now follow. Many hearing the list of names in the genealogy would say that it is just a summary of the Jewish history, but to the Jews to whom Matthew was writing, it was not just a list of names, but a short account of the events of divine providence. The true heir to the promises made to Abraham and David is Jesus Christ of whom Matthew is about to mention.
“When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
Matthew mentions Mary as espoused, in other words as a fiancé, and a little further down as wife. According to the ancient Jewish Law, the betrothal was the preparation period before the wedding similar to as it is today. The wedding took place when the man received the woman into his house. But the betrothal was a binding relationship with obligations between the betrothed. If for example the man died before the wedding, the woman was considered a widow. After the betrothal and before the wedding, the man was the legal husband and the bond could only be loosed if the man gave the woman a written release and monetary compensation.

The verse we just heard and also the last verse in the reading have been grossly misunderstood and even mistranslated by western minds. They are read by Christians without taking into account the Jewish traditions and ways of expressions that cannot be conveyed in another language without loosing the true meaning. Thus here it says “before they came together”: naturally one would assume that it means that they came together afterwards. This is a total misunderstanding of what is said in the Greek. In the Greek it is “πρίν ἤ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς”. It is not in the past tense as translated in English, but rather in the infinitive case and should therefore read “before they were to come together”. But even this does not refer to the coming together of the flesh, but to the fact that Mary had not yet moved into Joseph’s house. So in fact it is saying “before Mary went to live together with Joseph”. It cannot mean the marital relationship because the wedding had not yet taken place and Joseph had not received his fiancé into his own home. The verse continues with “she was found with child”. Who found her with child? This can only mean that it came to Joseph’s knowledge that Mary was pregnant. The verse also tells us that Mary was not pregnant before she was betrothed to Joseph and then cunningly took Joseph as her betrothed to cover up some dishonourable action. She conceived by some miraculous way that surpasses our understanding by the Holy Ghost.

There are only two Gospels that tell us of the birth of Jesus Christ: Matthew’s and Luke’s. We know that the details for Luke’s account were given to him directly from the Mother of God. There is mention of details that only Mary could have known. Matthew’s account of the Nativity is said to have been written with details given him by Joseph and reading between the lines we can see Joseph’s fears, his distress and his human approach to resolve the problem and how he eventually submitted to the divine revelation.
“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.”
Here it confirms that even though Joseph was betrothed to Mary; in the sight of the law he was already considered her husband. Joseph was a just and righteous man who observed the Law of Moses. How could he continue to have Mary as his wife who had clearly violated the marital trust? How could he not comply with the law which clearly states to dismiss a woman found with child by another man. How could he make a public example of her? He had two choices according to the law: the first was to bring her up before the council who if they found her guilty would officially have her dismissed from the bonds of the betrothal or act according to the law found in Leviticus which says that those found guilty of adultery should be put to death by stoning. Joseph being a just man doesn’t only refer to his faith in the law, but also to his kind, compassionate, merciful and meek character. Seeing that his conscience didn’t allow him to shame Mary publicly or to put her to death he decided that the best way to resolve the problem was to secretly send her away. This would have been a completely private arrangement between the two of them and Joseph would have given her a written release from the betrothal without mentioning the reason for the separation.
“But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”
While he thought on these things shows how charitable Joseph was. Not only did he not condemn Mary, but kept silent not saying a word to anyone, not even to Mary to accuse her of his suspected infidelity. He pondered on what had happened to himself. But his dilemma was not prolonged for too long. The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him of how Mary came to be in this predicament. Dreams are mentioned in Acts and in many places in the Old Testament. But in the Gospels only Matthew makes mention of them. We have in Matthew, the dreams to the Magi, to Pilate’s wife, and more dreams to Joseph to instruct him what to do for the welfare of baby Jesus. The Angel calls Joseph by name as though they were already known to each other and then adds “thou Son of David”. According to the promise God gave, the Messiah would be a descendant of David. By law Joseph would have been the rightful father, but the promise was not given according to the law, but according to the bloodline. If you remember our talk on the genealogy and ancestors of Christ you will remember we showed how Joseph was Mary’s uncle, he was brother to Mary’s mother Anna. Thus Joseph’s genealogy was the same as Mary’s from her mother’s side and both were descendants of the house of David. The angel tells Joseph “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife:” here “fear” means don’t doubt or hesitate or don’t come up against God by thinking that Mary is an adulteress. “Take her unto thee” which again does not mean to take her in the marital sense, but to take her into his home with the sole purpose of protecting her. “For that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Conceived denotes that Christ has a human body, human flesh which he took from his Mother Mary, not as some blasphemously say that he was an alien from another planet.
“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”
The angel tells Joseph that Mary shall bring forth a son. He doesn’t say that she shall bring forth a son for you, because Joseph is not the father, but by taking Mary into his home, he has according to the law the rights of a father. Therefore the angel, acknowledging this right, tells him to call his name Jesus. According to Jewish Tradition the father is the only one who chooses the name of the newborn child. By giving Joseph the lawful rights of a father, the angel is also telling him not to think that just because the child is not his that he has not the duty to comply with the divine economy and raise the child as if it were his own. The name Jesus means saviour and shows how just and correct it was to call the Messiah by this name. Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew Joshua which means Jehovah is salvation. And he shall save his people from their sins. “His people” could mean only the people of Israel to whom Jesus belonged and to whom was given the promise of the Messiah or the more broader meaning of all those who believed in him and accepted him as their King and God. And here is shown something strange or contrary to the common belief of the Jews at that time: the Messiah and King that the Jews waited for, was a deliverer who would come and save them by fighting their battles and freeing them from the bonds of their enemies, but the angel doesn’t refer to any battles: he says he will save his people from their sins. The Psalms say something very similar “And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (Psalm 129). Thus the Jews were told to prepare for a spiritual deliverer and wrongly anticipated a political and worldly saviour.
“Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Christians of Jewish descent. Thus he often resorts to the Prophets to show them that in the person of Jesus Christ the Prophesies concerning the Messiah are being fulfilled. The prophesy mentioned here is from the Prophet Isaiah and is possible the clearest of all the prophesies concerning the Nativity. But, if before we were told that the child would be named Jesus, why are we now told that they shall call his name Emmanuel? The name given to the child by God and his parents is indeed Jesus. The “they” in “they shall call his name” does not refer to his parents, but to us the people who will recognize him as Emmanuel, which as St. Matthew tells us means “God with us”. Thus in a language that we understand today Isaiah’s prophecy would read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and the people shall recognized him as God among us.” Or simply “The child that is to be born will be recognized as God in the flesh.”
“Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son:”
On waking Joseph did as the angel had told him and took Mary into his house. The next line is the second of the two lines I mentioned earlier which has been cause for grave misunderstanding among Christians. I must admit that it was something that troubled me also before I came to know the Church. “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.”
The troublesome words are “until” and “firstborn son” At first glance one would say that it says that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph knew Mary intimately and even had other children. But what is it actually saying? “And knew her not” means that even though Joseph took her into his house and was legally recognized as his wife, they continued to live as betrothed and had no sexual contact. The word “until” doesn’t necessarily mean that after the birth they came together. Matthew’s attention is completely devoted to the birth of Jesus and not on whether Mary remained a virgin or not. He is giving us details up to the birth and not after. Probably he was only given information up to the birth and thus he leaves the after for each individual to come to his own conclusion. But in scripture we come across the word “until” many times and in many cases it does not mean a change in the circumstances after its insertion. For example we have the account in Genesis where Noah sent out from the ark a raven. “And he sent forth a raven, and it went forth and returned not “until” the water was dried from the earth.” (Septuagint, Gen. 8:7) The passage seems to be saying that the raven returned when the earth dried up. And indeed the water eventually dried up from the earth, but the raven didn’t return. Another example of the use of “until” is the passage from the Psalms and from the Gospels “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?” Are we supposed to interpret this as meaning that Christ is to sit on the right hand of the Father only “until” the submission of his enemies? Will not Christ sit on the right hand even after this and forever and ever? So, as with these examples, the use of the word “until” in the passage “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son:” does not necessarily denote a change, but as Joseph did not know Mary in the marital sense before the birth, he did not know her even afterwards. Matthew was concerned with the miraculous birth and not whether after this great event in the history of mankind, the Virgin had other children.

The word firstborn again does not denote that he was the first among other brothers and sisters, but that he is the first and only. In Isaiah its say of God “I the Lord the first” does this mean that there are other Lords besides the One God? No, it means I the one and only God. When the Lord struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians, it says that it also struck Pharaoh’s firstborn. This didn’t mean that Pharaoh had other children, he had only that one child.

“And he called his name JESUS”

This again tells us that Joseph believed everything the angel told him and accepted to be the father of the child according to the law and all the responsibility of raising the child as his own. Naming the child was the father’s duty because it was like recognising in public that the birth was legal and that the child was his and therefore a member of his family.