ISAIAH’S PROPHECY is FULFILLED IN the INCARNATION
H.H. Pope John Paul II
January 31, 1996
discussing the figure of Mary in the Old Testament, the
Council (Lumen gentium, n. 55) refers
to the well known text of Isaiah, which caught the
particular attention of the early Christians: "Behold, a
virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his
name Emmanuel" (Is 7:14).
annunciation of the angel, who invites Joseph to take to
himself Mary, his wife, "for that which is conceived in her
is of the Holy Spirit", Matthew gives a Christological and
Marian significance to the prophecy. In fact, he adds: "All
this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the
prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emmanuel' (which means
God-with-us)" (Mt 1:22-23).
2. In the
Hebrew text this prophecy does not explicitly foretell the
virginal birth of Emmanuel: the word used (almah), in
fact, simply means "a young woman", not necessarily a
virgin. Moreover, we know that Jewish tradition did not hold
up the idea of perpetual virginity, nor did it ever express
the idea of virginal motherhood.
himself will give you a sign
In the Greek
tradition, however, the Hebrew word was translated "parthenos",
"virgin". In this fact, which could seem merely a
peculiarity of translation, we must recognize a mysterious
orientation given by the Holy Spirit to Isaiah's words in
order to prepare for the understanding of the Messiah's
extraordinary birth. The translation of the word as "virgin"
is explained by the fact that Isaiah's text very solemnly
prepares for the announcement of the conception and presents
it as a divine sign (Is 7:10-14), arousing the expectation
of an extraordinary conception. Now, it is not something
extraordinary for a young woman to conceive a son after
being joined to her husband. However, the prophecy makes no
reference to the husband. Such a formulation, then,
suggested the interpretation given later in the Greek
3. In the
original context, the prophecy of Is 7:14 was the divine
reply to a lack of faith on the part of King Ahaz, who,
threatened with an invasion from the armies of the
neighbouring kings, sought his own salvation and that of his
kingdom in Assyria's protection. In advising him to put his
trust solely in God and to reject the dreadful Assyrian
intervention, the prophet Isaiah invites him on the Lord's
behalf to make an act of faith in God's power: "Ask a sign
of the Lord your God". At the king's refusal, for he
preferred to seek salvation in human aid, the prophet made
the famous prediction: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it
too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a
virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his
name Emmanuel" (Is 7:13-14).
announcement of the sign of Emmanuel, "God-with-us", implies
the promise of God's presence in history, which will find
its full meaning in the mystery of the Incarnation of the
4. In the
announcement of the wondrous birth of Emmanuel, the
indication of the woman who conceives and gives birth shows
a certain intention to associate the mother with the destiny
of the son—a prince destined to establish an ideal kingdom,
the "messianic" kingdom—and offers a glimpse of a special
divine plan, which highlights the woman's role.
The sign, in
fact, is not only the child, but the extraordinary
conception revealed later in the birth itself, a hope-filled
event, which stresses the central role of the mother.
of Emmanuel must also be understood in the horizon opened by
the promise made to David, a promise we read about in the
Second Book of Samuel. Here the prophet Nathan promises the
king God's favour towards his descendent: "He shall build a
house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his
kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my
son" (2 Sam 7:13-14).
God wants to
exercise a paternal role towards David's offspring, a role
that will reveal its full, authentic meaning in the New
Testament with the Incarnation of the Son of God in the
family of David (cf. Rom 1:3).
same prophet Isaiah, in another very familiar text, confirms
the unusual nature of Emmanuel's birth. Here are his words:
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the
government will be upon his shoulder, and he will be called
'Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace’" (9:5). Thus the prophet expresses, in the
series of names given the child, the qualities of his royal
office: wisdom, might, fatherly kindness, peacemaking.
The mother is
no longer mentioned here, but the exaltation of the son, who
brings the people all they can hope for in the messianic
kingdom, is also reflected in the woman who conceived him
and gave him birth.
6. A famous
prophecy of Micah also alludes to the birth of Emmanuel. The
prophet says: "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are
little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come
forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin
is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore the Lord shall
give them up until the time when she who is in travail has
brought forth..." (5:2-3). These words re-echo the
expectation of a birth full of messianic hope, in which once
again the mother's role is stressed, the mother explicitly
remembered and ennobled by the wondrous event that brings
joy and salvation.
prepares revelation of virginal motherhood
virginal motherhood was prepared for in a more general way
by God's favour to the humble and the poor (cf. Lumen
gentium, n. 55).
attitude of placing all their trust in the Lord, they
anticipated the profound meaning of Mary's virginity. By
renouncing the richness of human motherhood, she awaited
from God all the fruitfulness of her own life.
Testament then does not contain a formal announcement of the
virginal motherhood, which was fully revealed only by the
New Testament. Nevertheless, Isaiah's prophecy (Is 7:14)
prepares for the revelation of this mystery and was
construed so in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
By quoting the prophecy thus translated, Matthew's Gospel
proclaims its perfect fulfilment through the conception of
Jesus in Mary's virginal womb.
Weekly Edition in English
7 February 1996
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