4th Sunday of Advent A. December 18, 2022

 

  4th Sunday of Advent A. December 18, 2022

Isaiah 7: 10-14; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-24

 

Theme: Do not be Afraid to Take Mary (who Carries your “Salvation” in Her Womb) Into the Your Hearts and Families

We are closer to the celebration of the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord, Christmas. Last week, we attended a three-day Advent Revival in which we prepared ourselves again more through the teaching on the “Power of Prayer”, the Communal Penance Service which was followed by a one-on-one confession with absolution, and the healing service that concluded the Revival on the last day. Today is the fourth and last Sunday of our four-week journey of preparation and repentance for the celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord on Christmas. Let us remember this: although Christmas gives us the image of a holiday with decorations and shopping, we should not forget that Advent is a special time that the Church our mother gives us for our personal repentance and preparation for the “three comings” of our Lord, Jesus Christ: His coming on Christmas, his second coming at the end of time, and his everyday coming into our hearts and lives.

Let us recall what the previous three Sundays taught us. The first Sunday’s liturgy warned us that the day of Jesus’ coming will be unexpected like at the time of Noah. Therefore, repentance is urgent and that must be done now as Saint Paul exhorted us in the second reading. From the book of the prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, we learned what repentance meant: it meant to climb the Mountain Zion, the House of the Lord which represents our Local Church here Saint Bartholomew/Saint Augustine. Repentance must start with us “climbing our Church”, which means, coming to Church (especially on Sundays) to meet with our Lord, be instructed by his Word, and receive him in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The second Sunday’s scripture readings taught us that we must produce good fruits as evidence of our repentance. Claiming Abraham as our father or claiming the faith of our parents/grandparents or claiming our baptism and our many years of service at Catholic institutions is not proof of repentance. The only evidence for our repentance is the good fruit that we need to produce. One of the good fruits that we must produce as evidence of our repentance was to live together with one another with harmony and without discrimination as Saint Paul exhorted us in that Sunday’s second reading. The liturgy of the third Sunday called “Gaudete Sunday” encouraged us to wait for the coming of our Lord (on Christmas, at the end of time, and his everyday coming into our hearts and lives) with joy even amid our sufferings. Isaiah and John the Baptist faced the challenges of waiting for the Messiah in their suffering moments. You and I probably are in the same situation when we go through our trials, we hear all the time of shootings and killings, see people losing Jobs, and who are in extreme poverty. No doubt, we ask ourselves, “how to wait with joy for the coming of the Messiah with all these evils and sufferings? We learned from the experiences of Isaiah (first reading) and John the Baptist (Gospel) as well as from the good advice of Peter (second reading) how to wait for Christ with joy, faith, and courage even amid our daily suffering.

Now, let us focus on today’s Bible readings. The prophet Isaiah (first reading) and Mathew (Gospel) proclaim that the Virgin’s Son shall be named Emmanuel which means “God-with-us”. On Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. God accepts to take our human flesh and comes to “invade” our lives. (By “invasion”, I mean God, who comes into our lives, has his plan to transform us totally, to lead us, not in the direction we want, but in his direction, and to use us for his salvific plan for the world). Hence, to celebrate Christmas is to accept the “divine invasion” of Jesus who is God’s presence among us, the Emmanuel. Are we ready to celebrate Christmas? In other words, are we ready to allow Jesus, the incarnated Word of God to enter our lives and families, and so lead us in the direction that God wants, even if that direction seems not that of our choice? Ahaz (first reading) and Joseph (Gospel) faced this dilemma. Let us learn from their experiences.

The first reading tells us the story of king Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah. It is important to know the background of this story which will help us to better understand its lesson. Note that David united all twelve tribes of Israel under his kingship around 1000 BC. His son, Solomon, continued to maintain this united kingdom. However, after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into two parts: the kingdom of Israel in the North (ten tribes) and the kingdom of Judah in the south (two tribes). The descendants of David continued to rule Judah. The Northern kingdom was larger and wealthier but unstable politically. Around the mid-700s BC, the king of the Northern kingdom decided to team up with the Assyrians (today they live in modern Syria) as allies with the idea to conquer the kingdom of Judah in the south. At that time, Ahaz was the king of Judah. Although he was the descendant of David, Ahaz was an unfaithful ruler. During his reign, God called Isaiah to be the prophet of his people in Judah. His mission was to exhort God’s people in the Southern kingdom to return to fidelity to their Lord. Isaiah also challenged king Ahaz for his idolatrous practices and for allowing the people to do likewise. Because Ahaz was the descendant of David, despite his unfaithfulness, God did not want to let the Kingdom of Judah be destroyed by the Assyrians. So, God sent Isaiah to strengthen Ahaz’s courage. This is now the story we heard in our first reading passage. Isaiah encourages Ahaz to stand strong amid the foreign threat. Moreover, he suggests giving him a miraculous sign to reinforce his faith (v. 11). Ahaz responds with false piety quoting Deuteronomy 6: 16: “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” (v. 12). Note that Ahaz’s response is hypocritical because he is not faithful to God. This justifies Isaiah’s reaction to him, “Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God?” (v. 13). Then, Isaiah announces that God himself will give this sign to Ahaz: “The virgin (From Hebrew, almah) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (v. 14).

The fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah could be interpreted with the birth of Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah from the virgin (almah) mother Abijah who may have been betrothed to Ahaz at that time. Unlike his father Ahaz, Hezekiah turned out to be a devout king, probably because of the influence of his mother Abijah who seems to have been the daughter of Zechariah, a high-ranking priestly family (See 2 Chronicles 29: 1; Luke 1: 5). Hezekiah led Judah to one of the high points of its spiritual and political history. So, one can interpret that Hezekiah was the “Emmanuel” of whom Isaiah prophesied. Note that the name in Hebrew culture alludes to the essence or description of someone or something. When Isaiah announced that the son will be named “Emmanuel”, this means “the essence” of the son shall be “God-is-with-us”. Thus, Hezekiah could be the “Emmanuel” in the sense that he was a sign and confirmation that God was still with the people of the kingdom of Judah and had not abandoned them. However, Hezekiah fell short of being the “Emmanuel” because, after his death, God’s people continued to look for a more perfect fulfillment of the Son of David who will mediate God’s presence to them according to Isaiah’s promise. Therefore, the prophecy we heard in Isaiah 7: 14 applies to Jesus, the name that the angel gave to Joseph and Mary in our Gospel passage meaning “salvation”.

In our Gospel, Matthew explains how Jesus is the Son of God through the Holy Spirit and the “Son of David” through legal adoption by Joseph. (See how, in a dream, the angel of the Lord calls Joseph “son of David” (v. 20)). By quoting Isaiah’s prophecy in v. 23, Matthew wants us to know and believe that the child to be born on Christmas is the Messiah and Emmanuel about whom the Old Testament prophets foretold. Unlike Hezekiah, who was just the sign of “Emmanuel” (the sign of the presence of God among the people of Israel), Jesus is “Emmanuel” in a much more profound sense. He is not merely a sign of the presence of God but he himself is God’s presence in the flesh.

Then, the Evangelist presents Joseph as our model if we want to accept to let God “invade” our lives and families this Christmas. First, he points out the conflict regarding the divine pregnancy of Mary who is the fiancé to Joseph. The narrator informs us that Mary’s pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit but the people who lived with Mary, including Joseph, did not know or could not believe such a miracle because it had never happened before to anyone. We need to understand the traditional marriage in first-century Palestine to grasp this scene’s implication.

At that time, it was usually the elders of both families (bride and groom) who arranged the marriage. It took place in two steps. First, a formal betrothal in the presence of witnesses. That was legally binding. At this point, the bride had to remain at her parent’s home (usually for a year or so) until the ceremony of the second step of marriage which is the transfer of the bride to the home of her husband. It is between these two stages that Mary was found pregnant. Luke is the only Evangelist who tells us that Mary already dealt with this emotional situation on her own when the angel Gabriel came to announce this news to her. (Luke 1: 26-38). So, here we can understand that with her “YES”, Mary already accepted this divine pregnancy knowing all the dangerous risks it involves very well. Matthew, in our passage, focuses only on Joseph’s emotions and decisions. Let us look at Joseph’s dilemma.

Matthew mentions that Joseph was a righteous man yet unwilling to expose her to shame. (v. 19). “Righteous man” means, Joseph is in the obligation to be faithful to the demands of the laws, especially, in this situation, the law that prescribes death for adulterers. (Deuteronomy 22: 23-27). Yet, he is unwilling to expose his fiancé to death. Joseph is disturbed to find his fiancé Mary pregnant (he is not the author of this pregnancy) and afraid to complete the second step of traditional marriage which is to take her into his home. The decision that he finds fair for him as well as for Mary is to divorce her quietly or in secrete. (v. 19). Note that it is impossible to divorce in secret because witnesses are needed as the first step of traditional marriage was concluded before witnesses. Also, all Mary’s relatives and townspeople will know about her pregnancy one day. Perhaps, by divorcing her quietly, Joseph means not stating the reasons; he will not initiate a public trial as it was the custom in the Old Testament (see Number 5: 11-31).

There are two possible interpretations here of why Joseph is afraid to spouse Mary: either because he suspects that Mary committed adultery (so he does not believe in Mary that her pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit) or because he is hesitant to get married to “a holy woman” which will result of him too being set apart for the fulfillment of God’s saving plan for the world. Considering the former interpretation, we need to ask ourselves if really, we believe in the mystery of the Incarnation (God becomes a man and dwells among us) that takes place on Christmas. We cannot celebrate Christmas if we do not believe in this mystery. Regarding the latter interpretation, like Joseph, many of us today also fear letting God “invade” our lives and save the world through us. Both interpretations explain well the meaning of celebrating Christmas. God comes to visit us, and he needs us to open our hearts and allow him to be born in and let him transform the rest of our lives with one goal: to save humanity through us. A good celebration of Christmas is not in decoration and shopping but in our faith in the mystery of the incarnation and our willingness to let God “invade” us.  

Although Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly without exposing her to the death penalty is taken with “good heart”, it still does not prevent Mary from being exposed to public shame. The only thing that Joseph can do to save Mary from everything that can harm and dishonor her is to complete the second part of their marriage which means accepting Mary into his home and adopting Jesus as his own child. This is what the angel of the Lord reveals to him in a dream. (v. 20). Matthew tells us at the end of this pericope that Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. (v. 24)       This teaches us that we should not be ashamed or afraid of accepting Mary (who carries God in her womb) into the homes of our lives and families. Many people of different denominations criticized us because of our devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary. If you are confronted by them, tell them that we do not “worship” Mary and we do not say that she is our mediator to God as they accuse us wrongly. Rather, we worship only God; we “venerate” Mary as she is the Holy Mother of God. She is our mediator, not to God the Father, but to Jesus, her Son whom she knows better than anyone.

We are not called to be the “Ahaz” of our time who in our first reading refused to trust God and let him use him to bring peace to the people of Israel. Rather, Matthew teaches us that we are called to be the “Josephs” of our time. The angel of the Lord asks us, the way he asked Joseph, to accept Mary in the homes of our hearts and families (knowing that she carries our “salvation” in her womb). By doing so, then Jesus can be born in our hearts and families. So, let us allow God “invades” us and use us to save his people. Saint Paul was the “other Joseph” of his time. As we heard in our second reading, he identifies himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus”. This means that he accepted Jesus to lead him. To better celebrate this Christmas, first, let us believe in the mystery of the incarnation, God takes our human flesh and comes to dwell among us. Second, let us open the doors of our hearts and families for the “Salvation” (Jesus) to be born in. And third, let us allow him to change our lives and lead us in directions where he wants for the salvation of his people starting in our families, Church, and neighborhood. Amen.   

Rev. Fr. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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