A HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY BEFORE NATIVITY

 

About the Gospel Reading

 

   Brothers and sisters!

  Today is the Sunday before the Nativity, and so in the Gospel lection we heard both the Saviour’s genealogy and Saint Matthew’s account of events connected with the Lord’s birth. In view of the monumental importance of the one and the other, I would like to review the text of the lesson and provide an explanation of it, for our edification and enlightenment.

 

  The first words of today’s reading are the beginning both of Saint Matthew’s Gospel and the New Testament itself: The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham. The Gospels are the book of salvation, so they naturally commence by proclaiming the name of the One Who is salvation, Jesus. His sacred name actually means saviour in Hebrew. The other chief name of the incarnate God, “Christ,” means the anointed one. In the Old Testament, the term “anointed one” referred to kings and priests, both of which were anointed with holy oil poured out over the head from a horn. Jesus is the truest Christ, since not a physical oil, but the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Him in infinite abundance: as upon a king, because He exercised power and dominion over sin; and as upon a priest, because He offered Himself as the all-perfect sacrifice. Jesus Christ is called first the Son of David by Saint Matthew, then the Son of Abraham, because David lived more recently than had Abraham, and thus he seemed to the Jews closer to them than did Abraham. Moreover, David was a symbolic type of Christ, since he succeeded Saul, the outcast from God, in ruling over Israel, just as Christ succeeded the outcast Adam in ruling over the creation.

 

  After this opening line, today’s Gospel continues with a list of direct ancestors of Christ. It does not mention by name collateral relatives, like Ishmael and Esau, and omits as unworthy certain of the Lord’s direct ancestors. For example, from Pharaz to Nahshon 430 years elapsed, but Saint Matthew mentions only three names for this period: Hezron, Ram, and Amminadab. From Joram to Josiah he even leaves out kings, whereas he includes several female ancestors of Christ: Rahab the harlot, Ruth the foreigner, and Bath-sheba the adulteress. Despite the fact that the Jews normally traced genealogies solely through the males, Rahab is mentioned because she hid the Israelite spies and Ruth because of her fidelity to the true God. Bath-sheba is mentioned not by name, but only as Uriah’s wife, since she did nothing comparable to the good deeds of the other two. Although there were actually more, the Evangelist says that there were three groups of fourteen ancestors, because in those days genealogies were for the most part transmitted orally, and it was easy to remember this, and also because these ancestors are the ones worthy of remembrance. He traces the line through the blessed Joseph, although Joseph had nothing to do with the seedless conception. The reason for this is that, as I said, the Jews traced lineage through the males. In this case, since Joseph and Mary were relatives, the line was hers also, for the most part. Joseph is called Mary’s husband, not because they were fully wedded or shared a bed, but because they were betrothed, as it says elsewhere in the Gospels. Betrothal was not like engagement is today, an informal agreement that can be broken off at will without consequence, but a binding contract precluding marriage to anyone else. It was considered to be the actual beginning of marriage, only it did not entail conjugal rights.

 

  After presenting the genealogy, Saint Matthew continues with his account of the Nativity or, more precisely, his account of events connected with the Nativity. He writes: Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as His mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. When the most holy Virgin was fourteen or fifteen years old, the priests decided that it was no longer proper for her to continue living in the Temple. Both of her parents had died, so they entrusted her, as a betrothed wife, to her relative Joseph, who was already over eighty years old. By betrothing her to the blessed and aged Joseph as the guardian of her chastity, the priests sought to safeguard themselves and the divine Maiden from reproach, since she had vowed perpetual virginity to God. It was not uncommon in those days for girls to go to live in the houses of their espoused husbands. When the Evangelist writes, Before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit, he means that the Virgin was found to be pregnant “before they had physical relations.” So saying, he does not insinuate that the Ever-virgin Mary and the righteous Joseph subsequently did know each other carnally. The sense intended is that the conception occurred before there were any carnal relations, without any implication that these ever occurred afterwards. It is said that Mary was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit, and in Greek this expression testifies clearly that the conception was miraculous and would astound all. Evrethe, “she was found,” is another form of the verb immortalized by Archimedes when he exclaimed, “Evreka,” or “Eureka!” meaning, “I have found it.” The great scientist and mathematician cried out thus when he discovered how to determine, by specific gravity, the proportion of base metal in the crown of King Hiero of Syracuse; and the great Evangelist and herald of Christ used the same word when he proclaimed a mystery still harder to explain: the seedless Incarnation of the Creator of all.

 

  Then Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to divorce her secretly. Joseph was still ignorant of the mystery of the Annunciation, so when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he naturally supposed that she had committed adultery. Since the Law of Moses called for an adulteress to be exposed and put to death, it might be asked how Joseph could be called righteous, when his intention was to circumvent the Law. The answer is that he was righteous for this very reason. Already Joseph lived, as much as this was possible, not according to the Old Testament Law, but by grace. He did not wish to be harsh, but compassionate, and his charity proved him to be an exemplar of the New Testament law of love. Although his thoughts were in turmoil, he struggled manfully with them and resolved to act nobly, so God looked mercifully upon him and quickly put an end to the temptation. Similarly, whenever we bravely stand up to our temptations, we also find that they come to an end in short order, by God’s mercy.

 

  While he pondered these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. He pondered, it is said, but he did not speak, thereby showing that he was a godly man, not one to allow his temptations free rein, no matter how severe they were. Following Joseph’s example, we should likewise avoid proclaiming our temptations to everyone. Instead, we should deal with them masterfully, revealing them not to every itching ear, but only to God and to our spiritual father, from whom we can receive relief and healing. The angel calls Mary thy wife so that Joseph will have perfect assurance that her pregnancy is of the Holy Spirit, and that she had never played false with him; for an adulteress is not a wife, but a betrayer.

 

  And thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins. Already at this beginning of the Gospel, the angel refutes the Jewish notion of a Messiah coming to subdue temporal foes, for he says, He shall save His people from their sins. This shows that the Saviour was coming to vanquish sin, not temporal foes of the Jews; and it also makes it clear that it is God Himself Who will be born, for God alone can forgive sins.

 

  Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. The Jews have long alleged that the original Hebrew text of Isaiah said, not the Virgin, but “a young woman”; however, this claim is completely contrary to the obvious sense of the verse. Isaiah says, The Lord Himself shall give you a sign, and then he immediately adds, Behold, the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son.1 Young women who are not virgins give birth all the time, but truly, it was a great and unprecedented sign when the Virgin gave birth. It is interesting to note that the text of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, predating any previously known Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament by almost a thousand years, supports the Septuagint reading of “virgin” in this passage. The Jews also contend that since Isaiah calls the one to be born “Emmanuel,” the passage cannot refer to Jesus. This claim is as absurd as the previous one. In very many other places in Scripture we find someone, even God Himself, called, not by his proper name, but by a title expressing his attributes or relating to events from his life. Thus, in another passage, the same Prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah, Call His name, Plunder Swiftly.2 Who ever had such a name as “Plunder Swiftly”? Yet as an appellation, it applies to Christ exactly, since He despoiled error from the very moment of His birth. By referring to the well-known prophecy of Isaiah concerning Emmanuel, the angel assures Joseph even more clearly than before that the Virgin would bear not a simple man, but the true God, Who, as God with us, would dwell among His people, clothed in flesh.

 

  Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not until she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called His name Jesus. Putting aside all doubt, Joseph reconciled himself to Mary’s condition and devoutly awaited the appearance of God with us, Emmanuel. Saint Matthew, who wrote his Gospel primarily for the Jews, naturally stresses that Christ was the Virgin’s firstborn son, for, among the Jews, the firstborn was accorded great honor, but there was not much honor in having only one child. The Jews believed that having many children was a sign of God’s special favor; thus, for Matthew to have referred to Christ as the Virgin’s Only-begotten would have somewhat lowered her status in their eyes. Now, however, the Israelites according to the flesh have, in the main, decisively rejected the Gospel, so there is no point in continuing to indulge their weak understanding. Therefore, we directly affirm that Jesus Christ is the Only-begotten Son of God the Father, begotten by Him without mother outside time, and the Only-begotten Son of the Virgin, begotten of her without father in time.

 

  Finally, it should be added that when Saint Matthew says that Joseph knew her not until she had brought forth, this means that he never came together with the Virgin at all. Scripture frequently employs the word until in the continuous sense. For example it says that the raven released by Noah returned not to the ark until the water had dried off the earth.3 But in fact, the raven never returned, even after the water dried off. Again, Christ says, I am with you until the end of the world.4 Does this mean that after the end He will no longer be with the saints? Of course not! What could be more absurd? After the end of the world, He will be with the saints more than ever! Therefore, we understand until she brought forth to mean that neither before nor after the birth did Joseph know the pure Virgin. How, indeed, could he, being a righteous man, have touched the Virgin after he had understood the stupendous mystery of the ineffable birthgiving?

 

  And now, dear brothers and sisters, having reviewed this Gospel telling the Lord’s genealogy and the events leading up to the honored Nativity, it is time for us to put aside all our other concerns and direct our attention solely to the great mystery about to be manifested in the cave. We have been cleansed and prepared by the long season of fasting and repentance, and have only to attend the Divine Services of the next few days and hearken unto them with attention and devotion to be noetically transported to holy Bethlehem. As the celebration of the feast begins, let us with fervently beseech the Only-begotten Son of God and Son of the Virgin to grant us the full measure of His joy, that we may worthily greet His wondrous appearance in the flesh. Amen.

 

[1] Is. 7:14

[2] Is. 8:3

[3] Gen. 8:7

[4] Matt. 28:20