An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A (Matt 1:18-24), December 19, 2010
In November, a few years back, I went to Cebu City to celebrate the birthday of a friend. I almost did not make it, however, because our trip from Ormoc to Cebu was nearly cancelled, as the tropical storm “Ondoy,” which was spotted 430 kilometers east of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, with maximum winds of 70 kph at the center, gained strength. The Coast Guards, it was claimed, at first refused to give the go signal for the voyage. Later on, however, they did, with the warning to the passengers about the big waves. Indeed, as the Supercat negotiated the distance between Bohol and Leyte, we could feel how the winds and the waves buffeted it. The trip was a bit frightening. “Are you not scared of the big waves?” I asked. The passenger who sat beside answered, “Initially, I was. But having known that a priest is on the ship, I am no longer afraid. I know that God is with us in this trip.”
The belief that when one holds or can lean on a more-than-human power he will be protected from any harm or misfortune is almost universal. Those who do not believe in the presence of God in their lives seek assurance of safety and continued happiness elsewhere. Understandably enough, even among the supposedly educated mortals, the practice, for example, of wearing talisman to bring good luck or to ensure success and good fortune is fairly common. Gamblers, like cockfight aficionados, are notorious for their belief in the ability of talismans to make them win in games. Their favorite objects are items that are connected with the sacred, or have touched the sacred. The use of amulets is quite common, too. When one is new in a certain place, he is advised to keep an amulet to ward off the influence of bad spirits. Doors, windows, and walls are sometimes decorated with figurines or objects meant to stave off evil. Others use mascots to bring them good luck. Though amulets, mascots and talismans have different uses, they are similar in that they are intended to assure a person continued happiness and protection from the evil one. But, on the other hand, they of course show how weak his faith in God is, for these objects relatively control one’s movement, and even outlook in life! The presence of God in his life takes a secondary role. For a person of faith, these are of no use; nothing more could assure one’s happiness and protection from evil than the presence of God in one’s life.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as God’s presence among us (Matt 1:23). He sees Jesus as fulfilling the promise of the prophets that God will be once again with his people. For this reason, he appended to his account on the virginal conception of Jesus a formula-citation from Isaiah’s prophecy about the Immanuel (Isa 7:1-14, 1st Reading). In order to appreciate Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the Immanuel, it might be helpful to understand the Isaianic prophecy in its original setting. While Tiglah-Pelesser was trying to expand his empire, King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel formed an alliance of resistance, and tried to pressure Ahaz, king of Judah, into joining the alliance. When the latter refused to join and oppose Tiglah-Peleser, Rezin and Pekah besieged Jerusalem in the hope of replacing Ahaz with a puppet leader. To survive, Ahaz wished to have an alliance with Assyria against both kings. It is at this point that Isaiah paid Ahaz a visit (2 Kings 16:5-9), and told him that an alliance with Assyria would end with the destruction of Judah as an independent nation. Instead, he asked him to trust in the Lord’s sovereignty. Judah would be preserved if it remained faithful to God. As a guarantee of his word, the prophet said that a young woman would bear a son and call him Immanuel. The child would guarantee the continuation of the Davidic dynasty. Before he becomes mature, Israel and Syria would have been devastated. This is the original meaning of the famous Isaianic prophecy about the virgin conceiving a son or the birth of the Immanuel (Isa 7:1-16).
In Matthew’s view, however, the assurance that God would not abandon his people finds fulfillment in Jesus, because Jesus himself is God-with-us! Of course, the knowledge that God is with his people is ingrained in the Jewish faith. Isaiah himself best articulates it: “But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and formed you, Israel. Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mind. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior” (Isa 43:1-3a). God then was with his people—in Abraham and the patriarchs, in Israel’s worship and wars, in her journeys, in the Temple, etc. But what Matthew had in mind is a new way of God’s presence—God is to manifest himself not in a voice, wind, water, fire or animal, but in a human person who lives among his people. In the words of John, “The Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1b. 14a). In the person of Jesus, God has descended to men in order to abide with them till the end of the world. Thus, after his resurrection, Jesus assured his disciples: “Know that I am with you until the end of the world” (Matt 28:20). Of course, he was speaking of a different form of presence in the Holy Spirit, which finds a good description in John: “Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our dwelling with him”(John 14:21).
In effect, Matthew is saying to his community and to us: God’s presence is the guarantee that the person who believes in Jesus will be saved. For the person who has faith that God is with him, God will ultimately comes to save on his behalf. He may suffer, or even be killed, but the forces of evil cannot defeat it: “Form a plan and it shall be thwarted, make a resolve, and it shall not be carried out, for ‘With us is God’” (Isa 8:10). God will not abandon him in his struggle, but will see to it that he survives any setbacks, and strengthen him when discouraged and disappointed. For this reason, it is abhorrent to trust in objects and figurines that serve as talismans, amulets or mascots. Even if it were true that these have inherent powers, they are nothing compared with the assurance God gives a person because of the divine presence. Paul says something similar to this when he speaks of God’s love: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness or danger, or the sword?… Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us. For I am certain that neither death or life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom 8:35-39). Of course, that one will not be destroyed because God is with him requires faith—a leap of faith that king Ahaz did not have, but one that every Christian must possess if, like St Paul, he is to emerge triumphant with God.