22nd December. Fourth Sunday of Advent
Theme: In the lead-up to Christmas we venerate Mary, who gave birth to our Saviour, our God-with-us. Faith accepts the wonder of this gift, from God’s merciful providence.
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 7:10-14
(The wonderful prophecy about “Emmanuel — God with us” is clearer for us than it was for king Ahaz, seven centuries before Christ. For us, it applies to Jesus, born of the virgin Mary.)
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Second Reading: Epistle to the Romans 1:1-7
(In a densely-packed introduction to his greatest epistle, Paul gives the earliest Christian beliefs about Jesus.)
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24
(The virginal conception of the Son of God is revealed to the quiet, just man, Joseph. He comes to believe in the miracle that Jesus is God’s presence among us, “Emmanu-El.”)
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
What’s in a name?
What can it tell about the person who owns it? Not much, unless it happens to be a well-chosen nick-name. Names like Helen, Sharon or Jason are useful for distinguishing various members of a family; but they don’t say much about the people themselves. A name seldom tells about the personality or life-work of the one who carries it. With some Biblical names it is different. For instance, Abraham meant “Father of a great people” (Gen. 17:5) and Moses meant “Rescued from the Waters” (Ex. 2:10.) Above all, our blessed Lord has names which tell us everything about him: “Jesus” means “God saves,” “Christ” means “God’s Anointed Messiah” and the name “Emmanuel” in today’s Gospel, means “God in our midst.”
Centre of our faith
How important is Jesus, really, for our religious belief? Be honest. Ask the man-in-the-street what Christianity all about, and what’s the usual answer? Something to do with loving your neighbour; keeping the law; going to church on a Sunday? Not often will there be a direct mention of Jesus Christ, who is at the very centre of our faith. Ghandi once said, If you Christians took your Christ to heart, the whole world would be Christian.
Our Bridge-builder (Pontifex)
Nowadays, one of the most positive trends is in building up community, sharing efforts and projects with others, seeking out ways find common ground with long-term enemies. In a word, bridge-building and reconciliation with our fellow human beings. The greatest bridge-builder of all, who spans the gulf between us and God, is Jesus Christ. (High-Priest: Pontifex.) “No man has ever seen God; the Only-Begotten Son, who is closest to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (Jn. 1:18.)
Who shares our Lot
At Christmas we will concentrate on the simplicity and poverty of Our Lord’s birth: how human he was, born of a young woman, not in luxurious comfort, but in the discomfort of a stable. That shows him as one of us, the human side of “Emmanuel.” This gospel however mentions the divine origin of Jesus. Although he has a human mother, he has not a human father, but was conceived in Mary by the power of God. This unique way of coming into life, with God as father, and the virgin Mary as mother, underlines who Jesus truly is: both God and man, one of ourselves and yet one with the eternal God.
St. Joseph’s Faith
If this mystery seems deep to us, it must have been baffling for St Joseph. Close to Mary as he was, and yet seeing her pregnant without any action on his part, Joseph could only accept in faith what God’s messenger told him, that the child was in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. With great patience and humility, Joseph accepted the part for which God had chosen him, as human foster-father to the Saviour. This faithful acceptance is just what is required of each of us, when Christ comes into our lives, as “God-with-us.
Believe in God-with-us
Moments of crisis reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t face up to very often. They can show where our real self lies. Do we react defensively or aggressively out of self-concern, or are we able to see beyond ourselves to the care of others? Usually crisis also puts our faith to the test; are we really convinced about God’s care and support for us?
Today’s first reading invites us to analyse what true faith is. We meet king Ahaz who could not rely on God in the great political crisis of his life. What he relied on were his military and political security systems. Is our faith much the same? Is the god we really trust the range of our own power and resources, only turning to the true God as an extra insurance, a vague something to look forward to when this world is over? But such faith is inadequate. Real faith is relying on God’s continual presence with us, not just in those moments when human presence and support fails. Real faith accepts the reality of God in the strong as well as the weak moments of life. True faith sees God as a dimension of all our experience, the Emmanuel.
This reality of God-with-us is admittedly a mystery, and faith in this mystery is a gift. However, to say that faith is a gift should not be used as a “cop-out,” a pretence that it is totally beyond us, a gift for the chosen few. We all have some dimension of faith in our lives, we are all offered some share in this gift. We are invited today to use what we have been given, to develop it through real searching for the truth in all things. We are also called to make the great decisions of our lives conscientiously according to the faith we have been given.
In bringing out this sense of responsibility for our own faith one should be careful not to create exaggerated guilt. Faith as gift remains mysterious, and is confronted by many difficulties in our times. Faced with real doubts our faith needs confirmation, it needs some kinds of sign.
Faith may involve a leap in the dark, it may be the “conviction about things we do not see” (Heb 11:1), but seeking signs to confirm that conviction is not necessarily a testing of God as Ahaz would have us believe. It is only when we demand signs as a pre-requisite without which we refuse to believe, it is only then that the seeking for a sign is contrary to true faith (cf. Mk 8:11-13.) Signs can be sought legitimately and offered as confirmation for those who are truly open to the word of God and struggling to be faithful to what they know of him.
The promise that God is with us was not for Isaiah’s time only, it is for all time. In the Christian era the sign of that continuing presence is another young woman and her child, the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. For Joseph the unexpected pregnancy of Mary was not a sign to confirm his trust either in her or God, it was a contradictory sign. In the hours of his darkness he found the enlightening Spirit of God, the Spirit who teaches us not to judge by what our eyes see or by what our ears hear (cf. Is 11:3.) This gospel shows us that the signs God gives are not always the ones we would choose for ourselves. He gives signs for those who are willing to take on the darkness of doubt in openness and sincerity. There are no signs for those locked into the need for security only on their own terms.
Ultimately faith is obedience, the gift of response to him who is both son of David and son of God (second reading.) Christ himself in his life, death and resurrection is the ultimate sign of God’s presence in our world. It is he alone who can evoke the fullness of that presence. It is in our experiences and encounters with those who reflect Christ and his gospel that we find signs of God to confirm our faith. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, ever at the Father’s side, who has revealed him” (Jn 1:1-18.)