Sunday reflection: Matthew 1:18–24

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 1:18–24:

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. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. 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. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

O come o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel

Jesus is our Emmanuel, God dwelling with us. But do we dwell with Him? Do we allow Him to dwell in our hearts? Today’s first reading from Isaiah offers a reflection on that question that sounds amusing at first blush. The Lord Himself speaks to Ahaz, promising to give him a sign of His power and love — but Ahaz, confusing this as some sort of test, refuses to ask the Lord for that vision. “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” Ahaz responds, refusing God’s entreaty. Isaiah then scolds Ahaz for “weary[ing] my God,” and gives Ahaz the prophecy anyway despite his refusal.

Ahaz is a particularly important figure in the history of greater Israel. A direct descendant of David, Ahaz ascended to the throne in Judah just as the Assyrians gathered their strength to strike at the northern kingdom of Israel under Pekah. Pekah and the Damascus king Rezin conspired to attack Judah before then but could not conquer Ahaz, while weakening themselves for the eventual conquest by the Assyrians. Instead of relying on the Lord to continue his strength (as Isaiah urges just before this passage), Ahaz allied himself with the Assyrian king that would conquer Israel, even to the point of erecting an altar to the gods of the Assyrian king in the Temple itself. According to the history in 2 Kings, Ahaz even offered his own son as a burnt offering to the Assyrian gods, reverting back to the human sacrifices of pre-Israelite Canaan. The northern kingdom fell, at which point Judah was almost utterly isolated, although it managed to stand on its own for another century.

Ahaz did not weary God out of scrupulosity, it seems. Ahaz had abandoned the Lord for temporal power and alliances, and descended into idolatry to serve those purposes. Ahaz did not dwell with the Lord, so when the Lord tried to dwell with him, Ahaz rejected God.

That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Even so, this prophecy is so important that the Lord uses Isaiah to tell it to Ahaz anyway. It is a message of hope and perseverance, a promise of salvation for those who remain faithful to the Lord. That would be especially true for the House of David, of which Ahaz belonged, as the Lord’s salvation would come through its descendants. Ahaz does not allow the Lord to dwell with him, however, and Ahaz would surrender to temporal power and subservience to the Assyrians.

God was with Ahaz — in fact, yearned to have Ahaz hear Him and embrace His love. Ahaz loved power instead, to the point of killing his own son to please the Assyrians rather than open His heart to the Lord.

Contrast this with Joseph, a simple worker betrothed to a young woman who has been found to be with child. This would have been a monstrous sin in those days and an insult to Joseph, one which in many cases would have led to a public expatiation such as exile or stoning of the woman. Joseph desires none of this, but wants to quietly abandon Mary so as to remain sinless in the Lord. The angel of the Lord speaks directly to Joseph the same prophecy given to Ahaz centuries earlier — a message of hope in the face of fear, and a call to serve the Lord rather than Joseph’s own ambitions.

Rather than turn his heart away from the Lord, Joseph opens it to God’s will — just as Mary had at the Annunciation. Joseph had reversed the sin of Ahaz and restored the Israelites to the path back to the Lord. Where the mighty and proud had failed, Joseph and Mary had both prevailed in faith and love. Through them, the salvation of the world would emerge, and God would truly be with us in both flesh and spirit.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

What do the stories of Ahaz and Joseph tell us today? We all struggle with the choices of this world — whether we orient ourselves to the temporal and material, or whether we put the Lord first at the center of our hearts and our lives. We put ourselves on the path of destruction by paying homage to the material and the temporal, craving those to the extent that we shut out the Lord from our hearts and lives. He calls us constantly, but we often stop listening, and eventually stop being able to recognize His call.

Joseph and Mary show how we should orient ourselves to the Lord. Ahaz turned his back on God even while the Lord called him directly, and Ahaz destroyed his house. In today’s Gospel passage, Joseph opens his heart to the Lord and restores his house, both in the sense of bringing Mary into his home and also of restoring the Davidic line which Ahaz’ actions defiled.

When the Lord calls us, what will be our choice? Do we choose sin to reconcile us to the world, or choose Christ to reconcile us to God? When He comes to us, will we rejoice — or pretend we heard nothing?

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The front-page image is a detail from “Madonna of the Meadow,” Giovanni Bellini, 1505. On display at the National Gallery in London.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.