Dec 22, 2019: 4th Sunday of Advent (A)

behold-the-virgin-shall-2

Introduction

Along our Advent journey, the Church has prepared us for Christmas by setting out the larger context of salvation history in which the incarnational aspect of the mystery of Christ can best be celebrated and interpreted. As we remember Christ’s first incarnation, our minds and hearts are directed to await his Second Coming at the end of time.

Advent sketches the full dimensions of the mystery of Christ and of the salvation he brings, from the Old Testament prophecies to the fullness of the kingdom, thus establishing the context in which we can understand and live out our lives. It is a season that paradoxically exhorts to patience and sobriety all the while stocking the desire for the glorious consummation of all things. In the name of all creation, Christians repeat the ancient prayer of holy impatience, “Maranatha! Our Lord, Come!”

1st Reading – Isaiah 7:10-14

The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age. This week we read again from Isaiah, the prophet who offered hope to the Jewish people in the 8th century BC.

This passage may be one of the best known, yet least understood, passages from the great prophet. The passage itself contains many ambiguities, but the predominant way it has been understood may result more from its New Testament reinterpretation (see Matthew 1:23) than from the Isaian context.

Immediately upon his accession to the throne, around 735 BC, Ahaz, king of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), was confronted with a crisis. Assyria’s armies were poised to invade Judah at any moment. To oppose Assyria, Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Damascus (Syria) had created a powerful coalition. These kings wished to compel Ahaz to join them, and they were already on Judah’s soil. Regardless of which side he took, the decision would end Judah’s independence.

The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;

Isaiah’s counsel to Ahaz was to trust in God rather than foreign allies. He tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God, for two reasons: 1) to prove that his prophecy is true, and 2) to show God’s fidelity to God’s promises to the house of David.

let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!

There seem to be no bounds to the character of the sign he is allowed to request.  It need not be something miraculous (see Isaiah 37:30), but it should be something which will convince Ahaz that it is from God.

But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”

Ahaz has already chosen not to trust in God’s faithfulness, and he compounds his lack of faith by feigning piety — he insists that he will not tempt the Lord.

Then Isaiah said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? 

The prophet responds in apparent exasperation.  His formal address to the “house of David” indicates that the issue at hand relates to the monarchy and not merely with the personal life of the king. He is also reminding Ahaz that God promised to protect David’s kingdom. Ahaz is a descendant of King David. Why can’t he trust God’s promise?

Ahaz’ behavior has not only piqued the people, but God is tired of it as well.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:

Nevertheless, despite the king’s faithlessness, God’s fidelity endures and God will give a sign even though Ahaz has refused to request one.  The sign that will be given and the meaning it carries are the heart of this prophetic utterance.

the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

Prophecies are often interpreted as being fulfilled in more than one way.  The first fulfillment would usually occur within the lifetime of the hearer, lending a critical source of credibility to the prophet and his message.  Later events could also fulfill a prophecy, sometimes in a much different way.  Such is the case here.

Two Hebrew words are translated to “virgin”:  betûlâ, and the word used by Isaiah here, which is almâ.  Betûlâ is the more technical term, usually referring to one who has not had any sexual encounter.  Almâ, used here, denotes a young woman of marriage-able age — perhaps a virgin, perhaps not.

Isaiah proclaimed this solemn oracle before a royal court which was fearful that the Davidic dynasty would be overthrown.  Such a catastrophe would mean the cancellation of the great dynastic promise made to David’s house (2 Samuel 7:12-16).  A royal child who signifies the presence of God with the people would indeed be a sign of God’s fulfillment of this promise.

In that light, Isaiah is telling Ahaz that even if he is unfaithful to God, God will not be unfaithful to the nation. Ahaz will have a son who will be a much better king than Ahaz. This future king will rule in such a way that it will be obvious that God is with God’s people.

Ahaz did have a son, Hezekiah, who was a much more faithful king than his father.  Hezekiah’s mother, at the time Isaiah spoke, would have been an almâ. In Hezekiah’s birth, Judah would see the continuing presence of God among his people and another renewal of the promise made to David.

The solemnity of the oracle and the meaning of the name Emmanuel (“God with us”) imply that Isaiah’s prophecy has a deeper secondary meaning, one that foresees an ideal king from David’s line through whose coming God could finally be said to definitively be with his people.  This does not mean that Isaiah foresaw the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ, but he certainly expressed a hope that Christ perfectly realized.

2nd Reading – Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
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 resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,
to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,
among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today’s second reading is the opening of Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome.  As typical for Paul, it follows the standard literary pattern of the introduction to a letter of the Hellenistic period: name of sender, name of addressee, greeting.  What makes this introduction unique is the eloquent statement of faith that follows his self-identification.

There is a formality to this introduction not found in Paul’s other letters. Some scholars suggest this is because he was writing to a church that he had not established or even visited. Not knowing them personally, he did not write to them in a familiar fashion.

As written in Greek, the entire passage is one long sentence, comprised of ninety words.

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,

Paul describes himself in a threefold manner: a slave (doúlos), an apostle (apóstolos), and one set apart (aphorisménos).  Each of these self-designations contains a humble acknowledgment of Paul’s subordination to Jesus Christ.

At first glance, it seems unusual that Paul — a Roman citizen with all its rights and privileges, proud of his education as a rabbi, and with the financial independence of a craftsman — would not only designate himself as a slave, but glory in this status.  However, this is a way of proclaiming the lordship of Christ in his life, and reflects the Old Testament custom of the pious calling themselves slaves in the sight of Yahweh (Psalm 27:9; 31:16; 89:50).  According to Paul, there could be no higher honor.

The term apóstolos indicates that he has been called by another and sent forth to deliver a message.  This indicates that he is neither operating by his own initiative nor delivering his own message; rather, both are from God.

His assertion that he was set apart for the gospel is echoed in Galatians 1:5, where he explains that he was destined for this role before his birth.

which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures,

Paul links the message of Jesus to the ancient traditions of Israel, asserting that the gospel of salvation is part of a divine and ancient plan.

the gospel about his Son,

Paul launches into a christological formula, starting with establishing that Jesus stands in a unique relation to God as his Son (see Romans 8:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; and Galatians 4:4).

descended from David according to the flesh,

By stating that Jesus is a descendant of David, Paul is attributing to him all the promises and blessings ascribed to the person of David and the dynasty he established. In other words, by his natural physical descent, Jesus had a human nature, was a royal son and was a member of the people of Israel.

This also provides a link to our gospel reading, in which the angel will address Mary’s betrothed husband as “Joseph, son of David.”

but established as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In addition to his physical descent, Jesus is more than human.  Through his resurrection, he has been established as Son of God in power.

Paul is not suggesting that Jesus became the Son of God through his resurrection, but that the resurrection uniquely manifested his divine sonship.  Note that this was accomplished “according to the spirit of holiness,” a nod to the foundation of Paul’s trinitarian faith.

Essentially, Paul is reminding the Romans that Jesus is both human and divine.

“Christ is the son of David in weakness according to the flesh but Son of God in power according to the Spirit of sanctification. … Weakness relates to David but life eternal to the power of God.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 393), Explanation of Certain Passages from the Apostle’s Epistle to the Romans 5,7]

Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,

Paul next describes his understanding of the ministry to which he has been called.  He considers his apostleship a grace from God, bestowed upon him through the agency of Christ.

to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,

Through the agency of his own apostleship, Gentiles will be brought to faith in Jesus.

among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.

Paul personalizes this message by singling out the Christians in Rome, the audience of his letter.  They are the beloved of God, called to be holy people (hagíois).

The lines of initiative and responsibility have been clearly established:  God has called Paul and set him apart for the ministry of the gospel.  Paul is sent to the Gentiles in order that they too be set apart for God.

“See how often Paul uses the word called! … And he does so not out of long-windedness but out of a desire to remind them of the benefit which calling brings. For since it was likely that among those who believed there would be some consuls and rulers as well as poor and common men, Paul casts aside inequality of rank and writes to them all under one common heading. But if in the most important and spiritual things everything is laid out as common to both slaves and free men, e.g., the love of God, the calling, the gospel, the adoption, the grace, the peace, the sanctification, etc., how could it be other than the utmost folly to divide those whom God had joined together and made to be of equal honor in the higher things, for the sake of things on earth. For this reason, I presume, from the very start this blessed apostle casts out this mischievous disease and then leads them to the mother of blessings – humility.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 1,7]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The extended statement of faith is concluded, and Paul completes the formal epistolary introduction with a salutation composed of the Greek expression “grace to you” and the Hebrew greeting “peace.”  The combined salutation is really a prayer for grace and peace, coming conjointly from God and from Christ.

The Romans have been called to be holy, and so have we. During Advent, we strive to grow in holiness as we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ.

Gospel – Matthew 1:18-24

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the gospel reading relates the events that prepared immediately for the Lord’s birth. This year, we focus on Matthew’s story of how an angel revealed to Joseph that the child Mary has conceived is from the Holy Spirit.

Unlike Luke’s account (of the annunciation, Luke 1:26-38), in Matthew’s gospel, the announcement of Jesus’ conception and salvific role for humanity is not made to Mary, but to Joseph. The story is primarily christological — that is, it teaches about the identity of Jesus.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.

Matthew declares that this will be an account of Jesus’ birth; however, as we will see, it is really a description of his descent, with comments on his conception and the early days of Mary’s pregnancy.

When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, 

Betrothal, which usually lasted about a year, was a legal agreement conferring on the couple the status of marriage.  The woman remained in her father’s home until the public ceremony, which the man came in procession to bring her into his own home.  The union was usually consummated after this.

At the time of betrothal, the man and woman were given the titles “husband” and “wife,” and the commitments associated with marriage were expected of them.  Subsequent infidelity was considered adultery.

she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.

The first lesson on Jesus’ identity: he was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

When it became clear that Mary was carrying a child, Joseph was faced with a dilemma.  Since the child was not his, it would appear that Mary had committed adultery and, according to the Law, should be stoned (see Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  As a righteous man (díkais, which translates to “observer of the law”), what should he do? In Joseph’s culture, for a woman to have conceived a child before living with her husband was a crime deserving of death.

Jewish law did allow a man to divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 23:13-21; Mishnah Sotah 1.1, 5).  Even in his heartbreak, he did not want to expose her to shame, so this was the course of action he chose.

Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream

The Bible conveys many stories of divine revelations, either in dreams or through the mediation of heavenly messengers.  Both means of communication are employed here.

and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.

It is easy to understand that Joseph would be heartbroken and upset. But why would he be afraid?

In light of the Mosaic Law’s requirements of justice, it wouldn’t be honorable for him to assume the paternity of a child whom he knew wasn’t his.  If the true paternity came to light, his failure to repudiate her could be seen as evidence of a disgraceful connivance on his part for her sin.

Acting out our commitment to God is a fearful thing, and it demands great trust in him.

For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.

In the dream, the angel reveals the true origin of the child and exonerates Mary of any impropriety.  Joseph is encouraged to pursue the final phase of marriage to Mary; when he does, Jesus becomes his legal son.

The second lesson on Jesus’ identity: though not the biological son of Joseph, as his legal heir Jesus can be legitimately considered a son of David. This is important because the Jews expected God to save the people from their political adversaries through someone in King David’s line.

Note how Matthew reiterates Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit. This is not intended to imply a trinitarian theology but is more concerned with pointing toward eschatological fulfillment. In Jewish prophetic theology, the Spirit of the Lord was believed to be the renewing force in the future messianic era. Here, at the dawning of that era, the power of the Spirit is manifested in an extraordinary way.

She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph is instructed to accept Jesus’ mother as his wife, accept Jesus as his son, and to officially name him.

The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yahweh helps,” but in first-century Judaism was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.”

Note how the angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save the people not from foreign domination, but from their sins.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:

A solemn formula of fulfillment is proclaimed, highlighting the connection between what has just been described and something significant in the early tradition of Israel.  This is part of a larger theme of Matthew’s gospel, in which fulfillment occurs eleven times — more than the other three gospels combined. Matthew is writing primarily to a Jewish audience; he is teaching them that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to them.

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, 

This citation of Isaiah 7:14 (our first reading) comes from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible. There the Hebrew almâ (young woman of marriageable age) is translated as parthénos (virgin). Matthew and the Church, looking backward through the lens of the resurrection, see the birth of Christ from the Blessed Virgin Mary as the perfect fulfillment of this prophecy.

and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

This is amazing news. The birth of Jesus, as described here, initiates the Messianic age of salvation to which the whole Old Testament looks forward, and Jesus makes the presence of God among his people a physical reality.

Matthew considered the “God-with-us” appellation so important that the very last sentence of his gospel is Jesus saying: Behold, I am with you always.

The Church holds that the physical reality of God’s presence continues in the Holy Eucharist and via the Holy Spirit.

“Every religion speaks of God or the gods.  Many philosophies contain teachings about a supreme being or first cause.  But the Bible alone indicates that God’s truest name and most distinctive quality is that he will be with us.  In good times and bad, during periods of light and darkness, when we are rejoicing and grieving, God is stubbornly with us.  Emmanuel.” [Bishop Robert Barron]

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

In the gospels, the word awoke carries a greater meaning than simply to arise. In his rising, Joseph has experienced a deep inner awakening, similar to Peter’s healed mother-in-law (Matthew 8:15), the forgiven and cured paralytic (Matthew 9:5-7), the disciples at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:7), and the bridesmaids who wake to greet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:7).

Joseph does as instructed without question or delay. He is the obedient man of action whose every move is attentive to the will of God. Unlike King Ahaz in the first reading, Joseph trusts in God even when life is surprising and difficult — a choice that leads to joy and peace. Ahaz represents a life built on trusting things of the world — a choice that leads to anxiety and unfulfillment.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ into our own hearts and homes we can use Joseph as our model: We can become more and more obedient to God and become more and more loving in our relationships with one another.

Connections and Themes

  • On this last Sunday of Advent, we are on the threshold of the eschatological age of fulfillment.  The theme of today’s readings is faith: the faith that is required for us to step over that threshold.
    • First Reading: The first of two examples of the human response to the call, Ahaz was called to faith and fails the test.
    • Second Reading: Paul offers us three ways of living out this faith: as a slave to Christ, as an apostle, as one set apart for service.
    • Gospel Reading: In contrast to Ahaz, Joseph is called to faith during a great moral quandary, one that tests his adherence to the Law.  He is a paragon of faith and a model to us all.
  • Faith.  Despite all the excitement associated with our pilgrimage to eschatological fulfillment, despite all the assurances it will be an experience of peace and abundant life, the mystery for which we long requires the risk of faith.  Despite all the times we have celebrated the nativity, we still do not have full comprehension and understanding.  Ahaz was unable to take the blind step of faith into trust of God, and he tried to hide his weakness behind false piety.  In contrast, Joseph’s genuine piety precipitated the dilemma in which he found himself.  Thankfully, we are not required to set future events in motion the way these two men were; rather, we are invited to enter deeply into the event before us.  Will we step into a life of deeper faith and commitment, or will we merely participate in the external celebration of the feast?
  • Slave, apostle, and set apart.  The circumstances of our lives influence the way we live out our faith.  We may not like the word “slave” (doúlos), but it refers to one who is devoted to the service of another.  This is precisely what Christians are called to be and do, to be devoted to the service of Christ.  Our primary commitment must be to Christ and to the way of being human he has shown us.  We must be committed to what enriches life and not to what diminishes or destroys it.  We must be committed to the good of people and not to the hoarding of things.  To be a slave of Christ means we will be decent, upright people, people of integrity.  This is certainly the kind of life we really want to live, and as we step into the eschatological age, we are called to recommit ourselves to this way of being human.
  • The apostle (apóstolos) is one sent to deliver a message.  Again, all Christians are somehow called to be apostles.  We may not be official heralds of the gospel, but we proclaim our faith in the way we live our lives, in the kindness with which we treat others, in the honesty of our business transactions.  We proclaim the gospel when we stand for justice, when we forgive those who have offended us, when we show compassion to those who suffer.  As we step into the eschatological age, we are called to recommit ourselves to genuine Christian living.
  • At baptism, we were all set apart (aphorizō) for service.  When we love, it is not difficult to serve the loved one.  Friends, lovers, spouses, and parents do this without question.  Service of others is perhaps the most common way of living out our faith.  We serve others when we teach children how to live in our world, when we dedicate time to our primary relationships, when we visit the sick, and when we care for the elderly.  As we step into the eschatological age, we are called to recommit ourselves to others and to deepen our service to them.
  • The mountain of the Lord.  With the completion of the Advent season, we have arrived at the mountain of the Lord, the place where God dwells.  T.S. Eliot once said: We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  Like him, we may discover we have arrived at the place where we began, but we now see it in a new light.  We ascend the mountain and enter the presence of God at the same time God comes into our lives.  We are on the threshold of a new age.  How will we enter this moment?

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