Reflection: Fourth Sunday of Advent
As we come to the end of the liturgical season of Advent, the prophet Isaiah introduces us to Ahaz, the King of Judah. Ahaz had become king at the young age of 20 and had found himself in the worst kind of predicament that a new ruler could be in. He was dealing with all kinds of trouble, including bribery using the temple treasury. God is wanting to help Ahaz, but Ahaz is not so sure he can put his trust in God. So God says to Ahaz, “Ask me for a sign — I want to prove my faithfulness to you.” When Ahaz refuses, God says, “I will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
While the first three Sundays in Advent typically look to the future coming of Christ, the Fourth Sunday of Advent always looks through the lens of Isaiah’s prophetic word and the promise fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.
The gospel of Matthew tells us yet about another man who finds himself in a predicament, and that is Joseph, who was engaged to Mary. Now Joseph, we are told was an upright man. Being described as just and upright meant someone who was a law-abiding person. Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant. But she is also about to become his wife. Under the law, he would be entitled to divorce her quietly. So this is what is going through Joseph’s mind — not only to do the best by Mary and not to bring any shame on her, but also to honor and keep the law of God. As he struggled with the knowledge that Mary was with child, Joseph can only imagine that the most compassionate thing to do is to quietly divorce her.
But before Joseph acts on this decision, he decides to sleep on it. He opens his unconscious self to nourishing rest; he opens himself to the non-rational, spiritual world and to the infinite whole picture he seeks. He entrusts himself to Holy Mystery and goes to sleep. (Similar to what happens to us when we are in a “kerfuffle” and we refrain from or delay difficult decisions and “sleep on it,” or when we open ourselves in Centering Prayer, prayerful meditation or other similar practices.)
In his sleep Joseph is visited by an angel who gives him two messages:
1. the Spirit of God conceived this child in Mary and she will have a son
2. Joseph is to name this son, Jesus (the one who saves) and claim him as his own
At this moment, though, I’d like to offer us another way of looking at this Sunday’s Gospel. In watching the Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life” it struck me that there were parallels between the movie and today’s Gospel, because it is a story of a “righteous man” (George Bailey) and an angel.
It becomes a parable of sacrifice and self-denial, of generosity and love – the story of a man who spends his life providing for others, forsaking whatever dreams he might have had so that he can fulfill some greater dream, some greater call. When you think about it, this isn’t that different from the story of the righteous man in today’s Gospel, Joseph.
It made me wonder if Joseph ever knew, like George Bailey, the frustrations, anger and temptations of life, which I think he probably did. He was human, after all, but more importantly, Joseph knew trust. And though the scriptures never have him utter a word, he spoke volumes with his actions.
Joseph, the one picked by God to be Mary’s husband and father to Jesus, listened and responded to what he heard. He dared to believe the unbelievable and surrender his doubt to God, taking to heart the message of an angel, and not just any message. This particular message to Joseph is considered so critical to the Gospels that the great scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, has referred to this passage as “the other annunciation.”
Like Mary at the FIRST annunciation, Joseph took a leap of faith, echoing Mary’s own Magnificat: “I am the servant of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.” And as a result of this moment, a family was formed – a Holy Family. God’s great plan could be fulfilled.
Isn’t it that way with all of us? God’s work can only be accomplished, can only be fulfilled when we give our assent. We are called, like Joseph, to cooperate with God and to be collaborators in God’s plan.
We are called to fulfill a dream – God’s dream for us. Doing that often demands the hardest thing many of us can muster: trust.
So on Christmas Day, when we cast our eyes upon the manger, let us be reminded of what that kind of trust can and did accomplish.