As any introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures will emphasise, biblical prophets were not predictors of the future, but rather social commentators, analysing their own time and describing the consequences that would result from current political practices. When Isaiah tells Ahaz that a young woman is pregnant and will have a baby named Immanuel (God with us), he does not mean this will happen some seven hundred years later. Instead, he points to a pregnant woman right in front of them and says that Ahaz’s political distress will be over before that child is old enough to know right from wrong.
It is easy enough for us to understand that as we read through Isaiah 7, but what do we do with the fact that gospel reading for this week from Matthew 1 seems to identify that child with Jesus and not with a child of the eighth century BCE (Before Common Era)? More than any other Gospel writer, Matthew is concerned with demonstrating ways the life of Jesus aligns with Hebrew Scripture prophecy. He makes connections wherever he can between the Scripture he knows and the story he wants to tell.
But even if we discount a literal association between the Isaianic prophecy and its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, we should not be quick to dismiss the ways that both Isaiah and Matthew are, in their own ways, answering the same question: in times of great distress, when uncertainty looms, when we are faced with “wars and rumours of wars,” where is God? Isaiah assures Ahaz that God is with us, and he offers the king a sign of God’s presence in the child whose birth is imminent. The birth of Jesus assures us that God is with us, not just as a sign, but as God incarnate. “Do not be afraid,” say Isaiah to Ahaz and the angel to Joseph. So, too, says the word of God to us today.
Further, a newborn child evokes so much hope. The miracle of a child’s first breath and the powerful love that binds a parent to a child inspires poetry and song alike. The trappings of Christmas so often associate Jesus’ birth with these inspirational notions. And yet the story Matthew recounts is dotted with threats. Like the many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures when God’s promises seem to be at stake, it is the faithfulness of God’s followers, their trust in God’s promises, that make all the difference. Unlike Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Matthew focuses on Joseph. In this account, Mary never speaks or acts.
Instead, it is Joseph who is the recipient of an angelic visitor, Joseph who must take a step of faith. Upon learning that Mary is pregnant, Joseph seeks to act in a righteous matter and do the right thing. He will “dismiss her quietly” and avoid placing upon her the opprobrium that too naturally falls upon women in such situations, a harsh criticism or censure that Joseph may want to avoid for himself as well. The angel intercedes, pointing to Isaiah’s prophecy of a child who would be a living confirmation of God’s promise that God would never desert God’s people. This is but the first of many threats that would loom over this child’s young life according to Matthew.
If we pay close attention to the contexts of Isaiah’s prophecy to a king worried about encroaching armies and Matthew’s application of this prophecy in the context of imperial domination, we see that Jesus’ birth is not to be avoided or escaped and is political. Why else will Herod react with such naked violence in just a few verses? In short, Jesus’ birth declares an end to the reign of fear that threatened his life from the first and would eventually be the cause of his death.
Another thought from this week’s reading from Matthew 1 is as to what this word ‘Emmanuel’ means and why is it used and how does it engage us today. So, we hear that they shall call his name Emmanuel—to be called, only means, according to the Hebrews manner of speaking, that the person spoken of shall really and effectually be what he is called, and actually fulfil that title. Thus, unto us a child is born—and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace— that is, he shall be all these, though not so much nominally, as really, and in effect.
And thus was he called Emmanuel; which was no common name of Christ, but points out his nature and office; as he is God incarnate, and dwells by what Christians call Spirit in the hearts of God’s people. It is observable, the words in Isaiah are, you/thou (namely, his mother) shall call; but here, they—that is, all his people, shall call—shall acknowledge him to be Emmanuel, God with us. Which being interpreted—this seems to be proof that St. Matthew would have been writing his Gospel in Greek, and not in Hebrew, even though he writes for the Hebrew people. Sometimes these insights help us understand who Jesus is for us today and is for all time.