Sunday, December 18, 2016

Year A Fourth Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-6; Rom 1:1-7; Matt 1:18-24

The author of St Matthew’s Gospel was very concerned to show from the Old Testament how Jesus was the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. This is why he saw the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy from our first reading today as Jesus’ birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. King Ahaz was the original recipient of this prophecy. The Hebrew word almah, which is usually translated into English as “virgin,” precisely means “a young woman of marriageable age.” Of course, Miriam of Nazareth, who is believed to have been 14 to 17 years old when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, certainly fits that bill.

Isaiah promised the king that God would destroy his enemies. As a sign that his oracle was true, Isaiah predicted that a young woman of marriageable age would give birth to a child who would be called Immanuel, which means in Hebrew, “God is with us.” Like many of the Old Testament prophecies the author of St Matthew’s Gospel asserted that Jesus fulfilled, this prophecy also has meaning in its original context. The original context had to do with Ahaz, king of Judah, entering into an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel and Aram-Damascus to fight against the Neo-Syrian empire, which threatened the states who sought to be allied. Of course, Jesus would come and destroy all God’s enemies, including death, and then return to definitively establish God’s reign.

This is what St Paul, in our second reading, calls “the gospel of God… the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through [his] resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4). What, or more precisely, who is “the gospel of God”? The Gospel, which means good news, is nothing and nobody except “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:3).

Our Gospel reading for today is really about the “righteous” man Joseph. While the Blessed Virgin was likely a girl in her teens, Joseph was probably much older, perhaps in his 30s. I think to appreciate the birth of our Savior, it is necessary to grasp the crisis His conception created in the lives of both Joseph and the Blessed Virgin. Scripture gives us both of their perspectives. In the only two Gospels that present us with Infancy Narratives, Matthew and Luke, we have the perspective of Joseph and Mary respectively.

Betrothal was the step just before getting married. Betrothal was more than being engaged. To be betrothed was already to be committed. The main thing that occurred to change a betrothal into a marriage was for the bride to move into the groom’s home. To prevent the unexpectedly pregnant young woman from moving in, Joseph had to legally and publicly repudiate her. Joseph knew two things: how a child was normally conceived and that the child Mary conceived was not his.

Traum des hl Joseph (The Dream of St Joseph), by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1773/1774


We are told that because Joseph “was a righteous man” he did not want to expose Mary to shame. Such exposure might not only result in her being publicly shamed, it might have resulted in her death. Cheating on your betrothed amounted to adultery, which, under the law of Moses, was punishable by death. Interestingly, Joseph’s righteousness in this passage does not come from strictly obeying the law, but from his unwillingness to expose what he understandably perceived to be his adulterous betrothed to the shame and danger mandated by the law. It seems safe to conclude that, at least as far as the author of Matthew was concerned, Joseph’s unwillingness to so expose the young woman was proof of his righteousness. In other words, because Joseph was a righteous man, he extended mercy.

God then granted Joseph his own annunciation. Like his namesake, Joseph, the son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, God communicated with Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, through dreams. An angel told him that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, thus allaying his fears about the child’s paternity. What is noticeable in St Matthew’s narrative is that Joseph never speaks. He does what the angel directs him to do, which is to take Mary into his home as his wife. Implied by this act is Joseph assuming fatherly duties for her unborn Son. Joseph was intent to listen to and faithfully obey God, thus showing, rather than telling, us exactly what the “obedience of faith” St Paul, as an apostle, sought to bring about among the Gentiles to whom he was called to proclaim the Gospel.

We are blessed this year because Advent is as long as it can possibly be. Even after this Fourth Sunday, we have almost a week until we celebrate our Lord’s nativity. For most of us, this time of year is busy. For some of us it is downright hectic. But these “extra” days provide us the opportunity to spend time in silence, in prayer, pondering the mystery of God-made-man-for us. It allows us to prepare our hearts for Christ to be born in them anew by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I ask you to take time this week to pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary every day through Christmas Eve. This is a very fruitful way to spend time pondering the mystery of our Lord’s birth. Also, I encourage you to make a small sacrifice each day: forego sweets, or caffeine, or meat, sleep an hour less, don’t watch T.V., don't spend time on the internet. Pick one of these things each day, or pick one and be faithful to it every day. If you haven’t yet gone to confession during Advent, go this week. The Sacrament of Penance, along with the other sacraments, is only possible because of the Incarnation of God’s Son.

Above all, find time to be quiet. Light a candle in dark room and just listen, or quietly pray the Joyful mysteries. God’s first language is silence. Prayer and self-denial is how Christians, until very recently, have prepared to celebrate Christmas. As you do all of this, remember, Christmas is not only a day. It is a season. So, there is plenty of time to rejoice and celebrate.

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