They shall call him Emmanuel
Bishop Peter Muhich
Homily from the Televised Mass, NewsCenter1
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2022
The virgin shall be with child, and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.
I hope after this past week’s storm, you’re all dug out at home and enjoying a very white Christmas or pre-Christmas week now as we draw nearer to this second most important feast day of the church year, the feast of the birth of the son of God, Jesus Christ. Of course, the readings are starting to get us truly ready for that birth. We hear that prophecy, the virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.
In our readings this Sunday, you know God is really good at what he does. He works carefully, methodically, and consistently to bring about our salvation, and we see an example of that carefully prepared work in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah and Gospel reading from Matthew on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Our passage from the great prophet Isaiah dates from eight centuries before the coming of Christ, but it’s a part of the groundwork God is laying for the coming of the savior.
A little review of history here. Isaiah lived in a particular time, eight centuries before Jesus came. It was a time when the king of Israel found itself divided. We remember that under Saul and King David, the tribes of Israel were all one kingdom. But by now, about four centuries after David, they’re falling apart. The situation is a time of opposition between the northern tribes and southern tribes. So, you have the northern kingdom of Israel. Those two tribes in the north that are now allied with the Assyrian king. Then you have the other tribes, the other 10 in the south, the kingdom of Judah, and they’re actually allied with the Assyrian king and they’re opposing Juda.
This is a time of great tension between the two kingdoms divided. And Ahaz is king of the southern kingdom of Judah at this point, and he’s afraid because he knows the Assyrians are a powerful regional force and that would threaten to overwhelm his kingdom. God inspires Isaiah, the prophet to bring him this prophecy, really good news of a sign that all will be well. He says, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
God fulfills his promises, and so the king’s young wife does give birth to Hezekiah, known as Emmanuel, God is with us helping us, and the kingdom actually is saved. The northern kingdom actually falls to the Assyrians and the southern kingdom is preserved. The Davidic Dynasty continues.
Now, the interesting thing about this prophecy, is that what it says a “virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” in Hebrew the word really is for young woman. When it’s translated into Greek and many of the Jewish people lived, not in the Holy Land speaking Hebrew so much, as out in the diaspora, out in the Greek speaking world, and so they have their scriptures in Greek at their synagogue services and their times of worship from what was called the Septuagint. So, when you translate the Greek word for young woman in the prophecy into the Hebrew word, excuse me, into Greek, the word in Greek can also mean virgin. It’s very interesting. So, this prophecy about what was happening in the eighth century before Christ came will apply to the coming of the Messiah later on in a beautiful way.
Now we jump to Matthew’s Gospel, and we’re hearing about the coming of the Messiah, what the prophets foretold in all of past ages is coming to pass. And Mary, a young woman and a virgin, remember the word can mean both in Greek, conceives by the power of the Holy Spirit and bears God’s son.
Hezekiah is a fulfillment of the prophecy in the original setting, and he saves his people eight centuries earlier from the threat of the northern kingdom and the Assyrians. Of course, that would be a temporary victory. Eventually, the southern kingdom would fall to the Babylonians. But Jesus, eight centuries later, fulfills the prophecy perfectly and will not just win a temporary victory but the definitive victory, lasting victory over sin and death. Hezekiah’s birth foreshadows the Messiah’s birth in a beautiful way.
A couple more considerations today. What’s in a name? The angel tells Joseph in the dream of the Gospel, that the child is to be named Jesus. Jesus is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew Joshua and literally means God saves. It’s interesting to know that it was also a very popular common name in the first century. So, this prophecy is being fulfilled in a way that’s going to blend in in some ways to what’s happening in the world at the time. Jesus is God’s salvation, but he also could go unnoticed with a common name sharing our common humanity. He truly is Emmanuel, God with us. God walking amongst us. God is one of us.
It’s time to get excited about Christmas. What we celebrate at Christmas time is nothing short of stunning. God enters into human history in an unprecedented and unequaled way. In the birth of Christ in the incarnation, God becomes man. A human being so that we, men and women, human beings, can be raised up to become sharers in God’s divine life. Nobody saw this coming, that God will fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah in this stunning way.
So, it’s time to get our attention fixed on what we’ll celebrate in a week’s time. Spend some time thinking about that. Spend time asking the Lord to be a deeper part of your life. Go to confession if you haven’t, and plan to include Christmas Mass and then a prayer of gratitude at Christmas dinner for what we’re celebrating. It’s nothing short of amazing, that God would become man, truly Emmanuel in Jesus Christ in order to save us.
It’s time to get excited for Christmas for behold, “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means God is with us.