The 4th Sunday of Advent
(Isaiah 7: 10-14, Romans 2: 1-7, Matthew 1: 18-24)
The words of king Ahaz have always intrigued me. “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord” (Is. 7: 12). On the surface, this recital sounds so respectful and reverent. The truth is, Ahaz did not trust God and with this fake bravado he tried to camouflage his lack of faith. He understood military actions and battle plans, but he couldn’t wrap his brain around the actions of God. He saw how the cards were stacked against him and there was no way he could accept the words “Be careful, keep calm, and don’t be afraid” (Is. 7:4). He did not want to disrespect the prophet, so he chose to bluff his way through the conversation. Needless to say, he missed the point. “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Is. 7:9). He didn’t realize that nothing was more offensive to God than distrust. God is faithful even if we do not believe in him. Confronted by the king’s infidelity, God gave an unasked-for sign. Recall these words of St. Paul. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). No matter how great our distress and confusion, God remains faithful and true. The child, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, was to be proof of God’s fidelity and provident care for his people.
Like Ahaz, some of us may lose interest in God, but God never loses interest in us. God is not afraid of being put to the test by our asking for signs. He gives his own. No matter how great our distress is, God promises to be with us. The sign is even more captivating in that God chose to manifest his power in the frailty of a little child. We have these words of the apostle to the gentiles: “Therefore, for the sake of Christ, I am content with weakness, with insults, with distress, with persecutions, with any difficulties I have to endure; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son and all mankind will see the light of his glory. The sign is so simple, yet so awesome, that it is a source of hope for all people. This is where faith comes in. If we are willing to embrace the little child we will come to understand the immensity of God’s love for us.
We are not our own. God made us and we belong to him. God manifested his infinite love for us by giving us his one and only Son. The Word-Made-Flesh descended into our depths so that we might be raised to his heights. When we take the infant Christ into our arms, he draws us close to his heart. Locked in this loving embrace, the Father speaks to our hearts. “This is my beloved Son in whom I take great delight” (Mat. 3:17). As the light of the Father’s glory shines on Christ’s infant face, we can hear the Son utter a word, “Abba”. Thanks to the humble surrender of the Virgin of Nazareth and the self-emptying love of the only-begotten Son the human race has been brought to the dawning of a New Day. The Lord became small to enlarge us and he sanctifies our souls and comforts our hearts.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). In his gospel Matthew announces that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah has come. God fulfilled the word he spoke through the prophet Isaiah, but he didn’t do it in the way people had expected. Joseph’s grappling with Mary’s pregnancy demonstrates the point. While the blessings God offers are beyond measure, the circumstances under which he offers them are complex and challenging. I grew up in a Polish neighborhood where one of the old ladies would mark the calendar to make sure a newlywed couple’s firstborn child would be full term. Joseph was fully aware of the viciousness of the neighborhood gossip and wanted to spare Mary all that grief. Charles Dickens expressed it quite nicely, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities).
The marriage made in heaven was threatened by the news of Mary’s pregnancy. It is one thing to ponder the wonderful words of the prophet Isaiah, “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is. 7:14). It is another thing to deal with the pregnant woman standing in front of you. Certainly, Mary’s announcement turned Joseph’s world on its ear. As Matthew’s narrative unfolds, we get an insight into how God deals with Joseph. Evidently, God likes dealing with people who think. He comes to the aid of the perplexed. The angel is the agent who tells Joseph that things are not what they seem. Mary has not broken her pledge to him. She, in her chaste purity, was overshadowed by the Spirit of the Most High God and she has conceived a child who will be named Emanuel – GOD IS WITH US. The message is clear. Even when we are perplexed, God is here. When we wander in the valley of darkness, God seeks us out and carries us home. No matter how difficult the situations we find ourselves in, Mary’s child is with us.
With the dawning of day, Joseph allowed the meaning of the angel’s message to sink in. We can imagine Joseph uttering the words of his royal ancestor. “How can the ark of the Lord be entrusted to my care?” (2 Sam. 6:9). Interestingly, Joseph never speaks, but he acts on God’s word. The message he had received became the anchor of his faith. Matthew tells us that Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had told him and proceeded to make a life for his new household. Because of Joseph’s fidelity and Mary’s humble surrender, Emmanuel, the tangible sign of God’s faithful presence among us, is coming! Let us go out to meet him. With king David’s exuberance let us dance before the Lord with all our might. (CF. 2 Sam. 6:14). With all the members of the Body of Christ, let us enter into God’s presence, running and leaping and praising God (CF. Acts 3:8) until we are drawn into the bond of love of the Trinity.