Births as signs of saving events and the giving of names reveal God’s Secret Work.
The prophetic reading is the famous Isaiah passage about the “virgin” and the birth of the child named Emmanuel. In its original eighth-century BCE setting, the meaning of the prophecy was the shortness of time from conception to toddler-hood, and the great change that would come about in that time in the situation faced by the Davidic king.
The historical situation in Isaiah’s time: Ahaz, king of Judah and Jerusalem, is under siege by the neighboring kingdoms of Aram (Syria, capital city Damascus) and Israel (the Northern Kingdom, capital city Samaria). The goal of the enemies is to force Judah to join a coalition of small states to resist the huge power of Assyria, which has been expanding its empire further and further into Syria and Palestine. If successful, the besiegers would overthrow the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem and place a new dynasty on the throne, headed by “the son of Tabeel” (Isaiah 7:6).
Ahaz’ choices are (1) give in to the enemies and join the coalition, (2) simply withstand the siege and try to outlast the attackers, or (3) seek diplomatic escape by appealing to Assyria to come and rescue Jerusalem from its enemies.
Isaiah, accompanied by his symbolically-named son “(only) a remnant will return,” had already delivered a message to Ahaz from Yahweh, telling him to take door number two, stand the siege and trust God to take care of it (7:1-9). Our passage tells of a second encounter between Isaiah and Ahaz during the same crisis. Isaiah tries to convince Ahaz to ask for a sign to prove what is in fact God’s will. Ahaz doesn’t want to hear what he knows Isaiah’s message will be, and asserts that it is impious to put God to the test. Therefore, Isaiah insists that God will give Ahaz a sign anyway, and he predicts the birth and the naming of a child.
The child’s name will be Emmanuel, “God (El) is with us.” That is, a woman now (or about to be) pregnant will in a few months name her child “God with us,” symbolizing that deliverance from trouble has taken place. When the child is a few years old (probably at weaning age when it eats “curds and honey”) the two enemy countries will be no more. We may note that this “sign” is not much help to Ahaz, because it will only happen after the issue has been settled. Ahaz still has to live by faith, or sell out to Assyria (which is what he actually did, II Kings 16:7-9).
The symbolic name, Emmanuel, echoed the deliverance story of the Zion tradition. In that liturgical drama of the saving of the Holy City from the onslaught of hostile nations, seen in Psalms 46, 48, and 76, the climax was the joyful proclamation that God is with us: “The Lord of hosts is with us; / the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:11, NRSV). The hope and expectation of such a deliverance continued down through the ages, evoked by the symbolic name Emmanuel. By the time of the New Testament it had created a meaning-world of its own with special reference to the birth of Jesus.
The “virgin” and the prophecy. When the Latin-speaking West learned to read Hebrew again after the Middle Ages, it became clear that the Hebrew word for the woman in Isaiah 7:14 (‘almah) means “young woman,” who may or may not be married. Hebrew has a different word for “virgin” (bethulāh). In the third century BCE, when Isaiah was translated into Greek, the key word in 7:14 was translated by the Greek parthenos, “virgin.” It was this Greek that the Gospel writers read and that gave force to the narratives of the “virgin birth” as reported in Matthew and Luke. It was only in Greek that the “virgin” birth was a significant “sign.”
Isaiah’s prophecy created a history that ran on into the future to create a whole new spiritual world, the world of the Christian Madonna. (On the historical development of Jesus’ virginal conception, see Special Comment below.)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
The Psalm reading is portions of a prayer by a people who have been through struggle and defeat. It refers particularly to the tribes of the Northern Kingdom, using the unusual name Joseph for them (verse 1). The prayer recognizes that God has brought punishment upon these peoples—“you have fed them with the bread of tears” (verse 5, NRSV).
The main plea is expressed in a recurring punch line, which increases in intensity on each repetition. “Restore us, O God…Restore us, O God of hosts…Restore us, O Lord [Yahweh] God of hosts,” verses 3, 7, 19.
What is asked of God with each utterance of this plea is, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.” It is a fitting prayer for a people waiting in darkness for Advent.
The Epistle reading is the creedal statement masquerading as the writer’s credentials at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
It starts “Paul…set apart for the gospel of God,” and proceeds in a complicated sentence to summarize the essentials of the gospel.
- Was promised before hand through God’s prophets in the holy scriptures;
- Concerns God’s Son,
- who was descended from David, “according to the flesh”;
- who was declared to be Son of God with the power of the holy spirit… by resurrection from the dead;
- through whom grace and apostleship were given to Paul,
- specifically as an apostle to the nations [Gentiles]
- to call the nations to the name of Jesus as the Christ
- which nations include the Roman Christians, who belong to Jesus Christ, though Paul did not convert them.
It is the descent from David that is most pertinent to the Advent reading. It was to the “house of David” that Isaiah’s prophecy was delivered (“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” Isaiah 7:13). In the long run the good news of the birth of the Anointed One is for the nations, but its channel is through the great symbolic king of Israel who received the promise of perpetual kings from his family (e.g., II Samuel 7:16). It is the heir of David who is expected to bring in the coming deliverance from oppression and sins.
The Gospel reading is the awesome events preceding Jesus’ birth as seen from Joseph’s viewpoint, that is, the viewpoint of Mary’s fiancée.
The story simply tells us, with no elaboration, that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. This created a serious problem for the upstanding man who was engaged to her, who knew he wasn’t the father. It takes a divine intervention to prevent Joseph from sending her away—making her her father’s problem and presumably consigning the kid to adoption or some despised lowly status. Every step of Joseph’s actions through Matthew 1 and 2 is guided, as here, by an angel speaking in a dream.
The angel tells Joseph who the real father is and goes on to tell Joseph what to name the boy. Jesus, the Greek form of the name Joshua, comes from the Hebrew root meaning to be saved or victorious. The angel says this Jesus will “save his people,” though the qualification is added that he will save his people “from their sins.” The implication is that of all the powers that have oppressed and defeated the people, the ultimate or most critical power is that of their own sins. The beginning of deliverance from oppression and misery is deliverance from sins.
Since the narrative has now described a “virgin” birth, the Gospel writer gives the first of many prophecies from the older scriptures that were seen as fulfilled in various events of Jesus’ activity. Here we get the Isaiah prophecy of the virgin conceiving a son who will be called Emmanuel—yet another name for the Spirit-conceived child. The angel explains the name to Joseph. (Two forms of the name are found in English, “Emmanuel” follows Greek, “Immanuel” follows Hebrew pronunciations).
Christian tradition from the beginning has connected the “virgin” with the entry of God into a world depressed in misery and darkness. A deep and subtle cord runs through Christian cultures focused on this mother of the Son of God, who can be called the “God-bearer” in many traditions, particularly Eastern ones. Some deep cultural roots of that pervasive virginal-maternal theme were probably tapped already by the Isaiah prophecy about the “young woman”—and this theme has carried a mystique that we still feel as the Advent season climaxes.
Special Comment: the “Virgin Conception” of Jesus
On terminology: Raymond Brown pointed out many times that the Biblical stories are not about a virgin “birth”; they are about a virgin conception. Only much later in Mariolology did the idea develop that Mary was a virgin after the birth.
In Matthew’s narrative the virginity of Mary is itself not emphasized. The virginity is only a preliminary circumstance to the drama of Joseph’s decision about Mary. The fact that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18) creates the problem; it is not itself the big deal. Later Christian tradition made the “miracle” of the virgin conception a big deal, even making belief in the “virgin birth” a test of true Christians (see James Barr, Fundamentalism, Westminster, 1978, pp. 175-76).
A Progressive view of Scripture would seek a historical understanding of the virgin conception and its implications for Christian attitudes toward human sexuality, parenthood, and God. Broadly speaking, the virginity of Mary is simply a corollary of the impregnation by the Holy Spirit. For early Christians the important point was that the father was divine. God—working as the Holy Spirit—was the father. The whole business of a virgin conceiving by the Holy Spirit is a radical affirmation that Jesus was the Son of God—from birth.
Thus, the virgin conception is one stage in the developing Christology within the New Testament. When and how did Jesus become (or become manifested as) the Son of God? In its radical essentials, the answer is this.
- First, the resurrection made Jesus the Son of God.
- Later reflection made Jesus’ Baptism the moment of his becoming the Son of God.
- Thirdly, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus became Son of God at conception by the Holy Spirit.
- And finally, in John’s Prologue, Jesus was the Son of God as Logos before the creation.
(Many scholars have discussed this, but see especially Raymond Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, Paulist Press, 1994, Part III, pp. 103-152.)
As a preliminary remark, we should say that the virgin conception is a late item in New Testament tradition. The letters of Paul know nothing of it; the Gospels of Mark and John know nothing of it; it is not mentioned in the later general epistles or the book of Revelation. While Matthew and Luke both have cycles of birth stories that include the virgin conception, their presentations are completely different, showing there was little common tradition about the matter. Essentially, by the time these two Gospels were written (around 90 CE, give or take ten years), the following points were fixed in pre-Gospel tradition, since both Gospels assume them: (1) the Holy Spirit caused the conception, (2) Mary was a virgin betrothed to Joseph before the conception; (3) Joseph was a descendant of David; (4) the birth took place in Bethlehem, (5) in the days of Herod the Great. For the rest, Matthew and Luke reflect entirely different settings with entirely different people involved. Local story-telling skills had been inspired to fill in the details according to different settings!
1. Jesus became Son of God through the Holy Spirit in the Resurrection. Among the earliest written testimonies about Jesus, Paul quoted the common confession that Jesus “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness [= Holy Spirit] by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4, NRSV). In a later writing but probably imitating early preaching, “we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us…by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son; / today I have begotten you’” (Acts 13:33). God’s true revelation and power was actualized in Jesus’ resurrection: “This Jesus God raised up, … Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
2. Jesus became Son of God at his Baptism with the Holy Spirit. “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10-11, NRSV). The other Gospels narrate the same event, with slight variantions in detail. (John has the Baptist report the descent of the Spirit and himself declare that Jesus is the Son of God, John 1:32-34). In the terms of the tradition underlying Mark’s Gospel, Jesus became the Son of God at the beginning of his ministry.
3. Jesus became Son of God through Conception by the Holy Spirit. “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” (Matthew 1:20). “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:31-32). The conception Christology was developing in the later first century of the Christian era.
4. Jesus was Son of God from all time. “[The Word] was in the beginning with God. …And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:2 and 14). Only the addition of Greek philosophical refinements were required before the creeds about the Trinity were developed.
As to the implications of the virgin conception for Christian attitudes, it is clear that the original Isaiah prophecy, quoted by Matthew, did not refer to a “virgin” at all (see on the first reading above). It referred to a “young woman” ready for motherhood in the standard manner. The “miracle” there had to do with the political arena of Jerusalem and Judah, not with the birth as such.
Somewhere between the eighth century and the second century BCE, the young woman became a “virgin.” We don’t know how, but it apparently happened in the Greek-speaking circles of Jewish scribes, and got recorded in the Greek translation of the Isaiah passage. Very early Jesus followers in Greek-speaking circles seized on the now virgin-conception as a “sign” and became convinced that it referred to the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Their delight at discovering this hidden sign in the scriptures was expressed in the Matthew story of Joseph’s dilemma, and, among different poetic believers, in Luke’s richly detailed annunciation by Gabriel to the virgin girl of Nazareth.
As the second century of Christianity developed, believers increasingly came to prize sexual innocence as a sign of purity of faith—whether among women or men. From that time on a very different attitude toward the virginity of Mary grew, which ultimately became expressed in the idea of her perpetual virginity—right on to her death. Human sexuality had never stained her special holiness. She had to remain utterly pure because the Lord had passed through her body—without breaking a hymen at any stage of the process. Mary’s future after that is the story of all the Madonnas of Christendom.
Since the Reformation, Protestants have de-divinized Mary and in many cases have accepted at face-value the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ (younger) brothers and sisters, with no mention of step mothers, cousins, or the like (which were supplied as Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” in Catholic tradition from at least the time of Jerome). In this perspective, Jesus’ family life would have been standard issue. Only his status as (unrecognized) Messiah was produced by the virgin conception. For the rest we may imagine him a regular son of Nazareth—until a wild-man named John roused him to a different phase of his human life.