A new round of the Church’s year has begun and there is a sense of anticipation about. The emphases of the previous three Sundays were: readiness and wakefulness for something new, a change of heart and the build-up of rejoicing. This, the fourth Sunday of Advent focuses on Mary’s child, Immanuel.
The first Reading of this the fourth Sunday of Advent is taken from Isaiah 7: 10-14. The prophet Isaiah had appealed to Ahaz, the 11th King of Israel, to ask God for a sign. Ahaz had inherited from his father a very difficult period to rule in, the history of Israel. It was beset by political strife, which overwhelmed any ability Ahaz had, and his innate vacillation did not help matters. He had apostastised, worshipping and sacrificing to false gods. He had taken from the temple and from his own house, in order to pay tribute to Assyria. All this had eroded any trust he may have had in his ancestral God. He flatly refused Isaiah’s proposal to ask for a sign from God. His own behaviour had lost him the grace to do the right thing.
In spite of Ahaz’s obduracy, God’s arm in mercy and generosity was not shortened towards Israel. Through Isaiah God gave Israel a sign:
The maiden is with child and soon will give birth to a son, whom she will call Immanuel,
a name which means God-is-with-us.
What a stupendous sign, what a wondrous sign of promise. What a sign of God’s grace and approval. It conjures up for me the Star of Bethlehem! What an Immanuel Moment! So full of grace!
Have you ever experienced an Immanuel moment? Have the glittering tinsel and bright baubles so dazzled you, that you have failed to recognise an Immanuel Moment when it presented itself? Perhaps your worshipping at the shrine of consumerism has so dimmed and blurred your vision or blunted your appreciation for God’s signs, that you missed the Immanuel Moment. Maybe you have been paying tribute to the worthless hustle and bustle at this time that we mistake for Christmas?
With the Church, let us move with the Responsorial Psalm (24) in giving a royal welcome to the Lord and let us take note of the moral requirements for God’s service.
The second Reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans 1: 1-7. Paul was an educated Pharisee, the product of Greek culture and the proud holder of Roman citizenship – he held a ‘triple passport’.
His introduction to the Romans was really his usual style of greeting in his letters. In this case, he was writing to a place he had never visited, to a people he had never met. He knew of the tensions between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians, so being a highly intelligent person, he knew that his diplomacy was the name of the game. He could use his rich background – his ‘triple passport’ to advantage. Paul, in his address, told the Romans that his preaching was about Jesus Christ, who was the Son of God, and in his humanity a descendant of David and that to all he brought grace and peace from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel acclamation re-echoes like a mantra the Immanuel Moment. Let us pay attention to it, in opening of the Gospel of Matthew (1: 18-25). This is a beautiful story, a human story – full of grace. Matthew very simply traces Jesus’s descent through Joseph who was betrothed to Mary. In Jewish Law, betrothal constituted a relationship of binding obligation. Before they came together as husband and wife, he found her to be pregnant. This puzzling reality of her pregnancy, without his involvement, caused him deep concern and deep anguish. He had the legal right to divorce her, but Joseph being upright and honourable, decided to avail of the less strict judicial act of private divorce, so as to spare her public disgrace.
Then he dreamt a dream in which an angel appeared, addressing him as, ‘Joseph, son of David’, a serious Jewish greeting. He told Joseph to take Mary to his home as his wife, because what had happened to her was of God’s doing. Joseph’s spirit lifted. His puzzlement and anguish gave way to peace, and he did as he was told.
Dreams and angelic appearances were not sensational events, but belonged to Old Testament piety and culture. Angels were carriers of Divine communications. Dreaming is one of the ways of coping with reality. The angel told Joseph that the baby would be a boy. We often forget our dreams, but this kind of dream was unforgettable. In the Old Testament culture, they were impressive and powerful and had to be acted upon. Isaiah announced, ‘She will call him Immanuel’. But Matthew’s angel said to Joseph: ‘And you must name him Jesus.’ Jesus became legally Joseph’s son and so belonged to David’s line. Matthew explains that this wonderful event took place to fulfil God’s promise through Isaiah:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son
and they will call him Immanuel,
a name which means God-is-with-us.
The original Immanuel Moment! This moment is echoed in today’s readings – as both grace and challenge to do what is right, and a promise of God’s approval. Do you ever have such moments in your life?
Let me share with you one of my Immanuel Moments.
One Saturday I was selling used textbooks to school children, when a priest, whom I later learnt had just arrived in South Africa from Europe, appeared at the office.
Without any introduction or greeting he said, ‘Oh, I did not know there were Coloured Sisters here. How many of you are here?’
I replied, ‘No, Father, there are no Coloured Sisters here.’
I paused and then continued, ‘There are only Sisters here’.
He said, ‘You hurt me.’
I said, ‘Well, Father, I am sorry, but are you doing statistics?’
He replied, ‘No.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘then your question is irrelevant.’
Then we sat down to a lively conversation over a cup of tea. We became great friends.
During the Apartheid era in South Africa, every citizen was defined by skin colour. If you were defined and registered as Non-White, you were relegated to the back of beyond.
This was an Immanuel Moment for both of us, because it called us to look beyond appearances or accidentals. For me it was the challenge to defy the State’s definition of my person, for the priest, to learn the truth. The discovery of God in me is in my humanity – my humanness, and not my skin colour, hair texture, vital statistics, accent or femaleness.
This Immanuel Moment remains for me a gift and a challenge.
Martine Pillay OP