The Old Testament only points to mystery of Mary’s motherhood, but the
New Testament proclaims that the birth of Jesus fulfils the prophet’s
"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). These well-known words from the prophet
Isaiah were the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General
Audience of Wednesday, 31 January, as he continued his reflections on
Mary's role in salvation history. Here is a translation of his talk,
which was the 13th in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in
1. In 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).
During the 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
The Lord 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 version.
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).
The 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 Word.
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.
The prophecy 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
5. The 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
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
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.
Prophecy prepares revelation of virginal motherhood
7. Mary's virginal motherhood was prepared for in a more general way
by God's favour to the humble and the poor (cf. Lumen gentium, n.
By their 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.
The Old 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.