Eternally, Jesus is the Son of the Father. Luke’s Gospel brings out the Father’s role even in the human conception of Jesus: “"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you" (Lk 1:35). Yet, Matthew and Luke emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus. The child is conceived “by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18, 20).
In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, St. Thomas Aquinas seeks reasons why the conception is attributed to the Holy Spirit, “…the Holy Spirit is love. But this is the greatest sign of love, that God willed his Son to be incarnate: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’ (Jn 3:16)” (Commentary on Matthew, 18).
Another reason for Thomas is that “Grace is attributed to the Holy Spirit: ‘There are varieties of graces but the same Spirit" (1 Cor 12:4).’”
Thomas adds an additional reason from human experience. We have a “word of our heart,” which is the interior thought in our mind. This word is hidden within us. When the word is spoken, it becomes the word of the voice.
In a similar way, the eternal Word was hidden with the Father. But the Word became incarnate and was manifested to us and was thus the word of the voice. But the word of the heart is only joined to the voice by the breath. Thomas concludes: “…the incarnation of the Word, through which He appeared visible to us was made through the medium of the Holy Spirit” (Commentary on Matthew, 18).
Thomas believes that it is most appropriate that Jesus was born of a virgin. “Christ was the principal teacher of chastity: ‘There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 19:12)” (Commentary on Matthew, 18). In other words, Mary’s virginal conception is best understood in the context of being consecrated to God in virginity and chastity as seen in Jesus’ example and teaching.
Thomas is impressed with Joseph’s “wisdom and kindness.” Joseph was disturbed by finding his engaged wife to be already pregnant. Nevertheless, he sought to act in a right way, which Thomas sees as a sign of his wisdom: “Wisdom, indeed, in the fact that he deliberated before he acted: ‘Take heed to the path of your feet’ (Pr 4:26), i.e., do nothing without the judgment and deliberation of reason.” Frequently, we act in impulsive ways, even in delicate matters that affect other people.
Thomas is struck by Joseph’s kindness: “There was kindness in his not divulging her deed: this is the opposite of many who want to make public at once whatever they have in their heart: ‘A man without self-control in speaking is like a city broken into and left without walls’ (Pr 25:28)” (Commentary on Matthew, 20).
Thomas reflects that, because of Joseph’s wisdom and kindness, God sent an angel to instruct and console him, “as though God's help was before his eyes.” God sends others into our lives who instruct and console us (Commentary on Matthew, 20).
Thomas asks why God didn’t inform Joseph about the true meaning of the events before he became disturbed. Thomas compares Joseph’s experience to that of the apostle Thomas, after the Resurrection:
For just as the Lord permitted the apostle Thomas to doubt his resurrection, so that while doubting he would feel [the wounds], and feeling he would believe, and believing would remove the wound of unbelief in us, so the Lord permitted Joseph to doubt Mary's purity, so that while doubting, he would receive the revelation from the angel and, after receiving it, believe more firmly (Commentary on Matthew, 20).
At certain times, God has given us insights that throw light on the meaning of events in our lives. He has uncovered for us our mistaken judgments and the difficulties that have come as a result of some of our decisions. We might ask why God didn’t stop us from these decisions or why He didn’t give us the insights we have come to after a long time of confusion.
The insights that God gives us are always graces, which are gifts. We might not have appreciated them until we lived with the consequences of our own choices. We might not realize our own resistance to God’s graces all along. While we might wish that the graces had come sooner, the fact that these graces have been given to us at all is a wonderful gift. God’s interventions in our lives are tremendous gifts. We may treasure these graces all the more because we know what it is like to live without them.
God’s words to the prophet Habakkuk may apply to such situations: “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late” (Hab 2:3). God’s graces always come on time.
Thomas points out that the angel addresses Joseph by name in order to have his full attention:
He calls him and draws his attention, so that he will listen, and to recall him to himself. This is common in Scripture, namely, that when an appearance which concerns higher things is about to occur, it required in the hearer a certain elevation and attention of the mind: "Son of man, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you" (Ez 2:11)... (Commentary on Matthew, 20).
We are often distracted when we come to pray. We think of prayer as what we do and forget that God wants to communicate with us, usually not in an overwhelming way but, as Elijah experienced, through a “small whispering sound” (1 Kgs 19:12), that requires our attention.
The angel tells Joseph not to fear. Thomas notes that every appearance of an angel, good or bad, causes some fear because “it puts a man outside himself.” We are frightened because we are not in control of the experience. The difference, Thomas explains, is that an evil angel leaves us in terror and the initial fear from the appearance of a good angel turns to consolation (Commentary on Matthew, 20).
There is the “fear of the Lord” that causes us to reverence God. Thomas grants that even a “servile fear” of God can help us obey God but the better fear is the “filial fear” by which mature children fear to offend the parents whom they love (2a2ae. 19, 2).
Thomas points out that the angel declares that the child will be named Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus saves the people from their sins since they are “a people acquired by his blood... Hence, they are the people of God by faith: ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a purchased people’ (1 Pt 2:9)…”
Thomas affirms that remitting sin is something “which God alone can do.” Jesus’ forgiveness of sin is an indication of His divine nature:: ‘In order that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins’ (Lk 5:24). Thomas asserts: “Hence, since God alone can forgive sins, it is necessary to say that this man is God, and that the attributes of God belong to him in the truest sense” (Commentary on Matthew, 21).
Through the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Penance, the forgiveness of sin, has become a part of our lives. We may forget that no Old Testament prophet ever spoke as though he had the power to forgive sins, a power only God has. Contemporary Christologists often call attention to Jesus’ assertion that He has this power.
Matthew makes reference to the prophecy of Isaiah that “a virgin shall conceive” (Is 7:14). Thomas explains that Matthew is using this text, “to show that the Old Testament is about Christ: ‘All the prophets bear witness to him, that those who believe in him receive forgiveness of their sins’ (Acts 10:45).”
Thomas acknowledges that Isaiah’s prophecy had a meaning in its time regarding King Ahaz’s situation. However, as Thomas notes, Isaiah addresses the “house of David,” “as if the prophet were saying: ‘The Lord will help you against that king, because he [the child to be born] will do much greater things, because he will be the liberation not only of him [Ahaz] but of the whole world.”
Thomas understands Isaiah’s words that “a virgin shall… give birth to a son” according to the Patristic belief that Mary would remain a virgin even in giving birth, “because in bearing, her virginity was not impaired in any way” (Commentary on Matthew, 23).
According to Thomas, Jesus is to be called “Emmanuel” (“God is with us”) for four reasons:
- by assuming our nature: "The Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14);
- by a conformity with our nature, because alike in all things: "Being born in the likeness of man" (Phil 2:8);
- by his bodily presence: "After this he appeared on earth and lived among men" (Bar 3:37);
- by his spiritual presence: "Behold I am with you all days, even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20) (Commentary on Matthew, 23).
Thomas comments on Joseph’s obedience to the angel: “Note that because we lapsed into sin by the disobedience of the first man —‘By the disobedience of one man many were made sinners’ (Rom 5:19)— obedience is proposed at the beginning of our restoration” (Commentary on Matthew, 24).
Matthew says that Joseph “rose from sleep,” which Thomas thinks can be understood as “from laziness and doubt.” The Letter to the Ephesians states: “"Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead." Joseph’s obedience was quick: “Do not delay from day to day, do not put off being turned to the Lord…’ (Sir 5:8)… he did at once as the angel commanded him” (Commentary on Matthew, 24).
Joseph did as he was instructed: “that not only what is commanded is done, but the way in which it is commanded. Hence, it says here as he had commanded him.”
Joseph’s obedience was discerning: “… that it be discerning, so that one obeys the person who should be obeyed and in matters in which he should be obeyed, in order that nothing be done against God…. ‘Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world’ (1 Jn 4:1)” (Commentary on Matthew, 24).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/