The birth of Jesus into human history was the true fulfillment of the hopes and longings of the people of ancient Israel.
The Church has always followed Matthew’s Gospel story in seeing the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 in Christ and His Virgin Mother.
Isaiah need not have known the full force hidden deep within his own words. Some have sought a preliminary and partial fulfillment in the conception and birth of the future King Hezekiah, whose mother, at the time Isaiah spoke, would have been a young, unmarried woman.
The Holy Spirit was preparing, however, for another birth which would fulfill Emmanuel’s mission, and in which the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God was to fulfill the words of this prophesy.
Matthew’s entire Gospel is about the scriptures being fulfilled in Jesus. In the genealogy (1:1-17), Jesus is the culmination point toward which Israel’s long covenant history has been leading. Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the exile was the last significant event before Jesus. When the angel says that Jesus will “save His people from their sins” (1:21), liberation from exile is in view. Matthew’s infancy narrative (1:1-2:23) forms the prologue of his Gospel.
It presents the coming of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s history, and the events of His conception, birth and early childhood as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Matthew tells us Jesus’ birth fulfills three biblical themes. First, He brings Israel into the Promised Land — “Jesus” is Greek for “Joshua.” Second, as Emmanuel — “God with us” — Jesus embodies God’s presence with His people (Isaiah 7:14, quoted in 1:23). Last, as the new David, Jesus is the Messiah born at Bethlehem (2:5, fulfilling Micah 5:1-3).
The first story in Matthew’s infancy narrative (vs 18-25) spells out what is summarily indicated in Matthew 1:16. The virginal conception of Jesus is the work of the Spirit of God. Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary is overcome by the heavenly command that he take her into his home and accept the child as his own. The natural genealogical line is broken but the promises to David are fulfilled — through adoption the child belongs to the family of David. Matthew sees the virginal conception as the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.
Betrothal was the first part of the marriage, constituting a man and woman as husband and wife. Subsequent infidelity was considered adultery. The betrothal was followed some months later by the husband’s taking his wife into his home, at which time normal married life began.
In Matthew 1:23 we have the evocative word “Emmanuel” — “God with us.” God’s promise of deliverance to Judah in Isaiah’s time is seen by Matthew as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. “Emmanuel” is also alluded to at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where the risen Jesus assures His disciples: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20). God did indeed keep His promise in Jesus. Jesus truly fulfills the plan of God in word and deed, in desire and presence, in flesh and blood.
In the name “Emmanuel,” we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf), and a promise and declaration on God’s part.
When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the almighty Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in this child.
In the baby Jesus, God is “with us,” not merely to bless us in some sort of cameo appearance at one difficult moment in history. Nor is God with us in that He is going to use Jesus to help and protect us. No — the little Lord Jesus asleep in the manger of Bethlehem is “God with us” because He is God.
Matthew, more than the others, takes great care to note that events in Jesus’ life happened “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23).
(Fr. Rosica CSB is Chief Executive Officer of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, and English Language Attaché to the Holy See Press Office.)