How the birth of Jesus happened begins today’s gospel’s passage.
Matthew emphasises the intervention of the Spirit from the beginning of his story to avoid a misunderstanding that Jesus may have been generated through the intervention of a man.
The spirit, in this story, does
not represent the male element. Ruah (spirit in Hebrew is female) indicates a strength, a divine breath of the creator. He is referring to the spirit of God that hovered over the waters at the beginning of the world (Genesis 1:2).
The virginal conception that is even explicitly mentioned by Luke (Luke 1:26-39) is not intended to emphasise the moral superiority of Mary nor, still less, does it constitute a depreciation of sexuality.
It is introduced to reveal a fundamental truth for the believer: Jesus is not only a man; he is the same Lord who has taken on human form.
There are many legitimate questions arising in us about this birth narrative. But, Matthew is not interested in satisfying our curiosity.
All he wants us to understand is this: the son of Mary is the promised heir to the throne of David announced by the prophets.
The conclusion of the story is solemn. The whole passage seems to have been written to prove the fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son who will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us” (vv. 22-23).
The literal meaning of the originial prophecy is: the announcement of the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah. He was truly an Emmanuel, a sign that God protected his people and the dynasty of David, but did not answer all the expectations that had been placed in him. He did not even realise the promises of happiness, prosperity and peace described by Isaiah. He was not a wonderful counsellor, an invincible warrior, an everlasting father, a prince of peace… (Isaiah 9:5-6).
Here is what Matthew means: Jesus is the one who has fulfilled these prophecies. He is the son of the virgin announced by the prophet.
He is really the Emmanuel, God with us. He will be given an everlasting kingdom and he will fulfill all the hopes of Israel.
Just as in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the theme of Emmanuel also returns at the end of the book with the parting promise of the Lord, “Behold, I am with you” (… Here I am the Emmanuel) always even to the end of this world (Matthew 28:20). The reference to God with us opens and closes all the work of Matthew because—the evangelist tells us—in Jesus, God has placed himself and remains always at man’s side.
The story also highlights the virginity of Mary. The term virgin in the bible also assumes a more metaphorical meaning: the person who loves with an undivided heart.
Virginity is the symbol of total love for the Lord. It is in this sense that Paul uses the term when he writes to the Corinthians, “I share the jealousy of God for you, for I have promised you in marriage to Christ, as the only spouse, to present you to him as a pure virgin” (2 Corinthians 11:2).
Mary has certainly realised to perfection even this ideal of virginity. For every Christian, she is the supreme model of total and undivided love of God.
• Father Fernando Armellini SCJ