The Gospel reading for the fourth and final Sunday of Advent is the account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
The importance of Mary
The opening words of this reading announce its central theme: Jesus, born of Mary, is the Messiah, long awaited by the Jewish people and prophesised in the Jewish Scriptures. At a first reading Joseph appears to have a more prominent place in this account than Mary; we hear how he was shocked by Mary’s pregnancy and intended to break up with her quietly until instructed by an angel in a dream to take her as his wife. Unlike in Luke’s Gospel there is no account of the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary or of Mary’s reaction to the astonishing situation she found herself in. However, at a deeper level, Matthew’s account of the events leading up the birth of Jesus clearly revolves around Mary and the child to whom she will give birth.
The text places great emphasis upon Mary’s virginity and the fact that her pregnancy is miraculous, not brought about by an act of man but through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus has no earthly father, only his heavenly, eternal Father, he is truly Son of God, and because he is born of Mary, he is truly human. Mary provides the eternal Son of God with his human nature, through her God is with us, in her son, our saviour. If Jesus had not been born ‘one like us’ (cf. Hebrew 2:17), he would not have been able to redeem humanity. The name Jesus in Hebrew literally means ‘God saves’, and Mary plays an essential role in the salvation brought about by her son.
Matthew’s Gospel stresses that Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures, and this text contains one of the most famous of these prophecies, announcing how Mary’s role in the salvific power of the Incarnation fulfils Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (a name which means ‘God with us’). However, Mary is more than the fulfilment of certain prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures; through her, a Jewess, all the promises made to Israel, God’s chosen people, reach their fulfilment. She is the one in whom the Old and New Testaments are united. She is truly “the highest honour” of the Jewish race (cf. Judith 13:18) and the truest image of the Church, for through her, Jesus, the Messiah, is God among us.
Sr Cathy Jones is a member of the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption and part of the chaplaincy team at St Mary’s University Twickenham.