from Jude Siciliano OP, First Impressions of the Readings , 4th Sun of Advent.
Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-24
All around us, at least in the parts of the world where most of us live, children’s spirits are bursting with joyful anticipation, lively hopes and unbounded expectation. They dream visions of reindeer and elves, sugar plums and skies full of wonder. And where are our spirits? And what are our dreams on this last Sunday of Advent? Do we have the spirit of Ahaz, or the spirit of Joseph, about whom we read in today’s Scriptures?
What is the spirit of this man Ahaz who appears in our readings every Advent? He is a weary warrior, King of Judah. He has made up his mind to surrender the hopes of his people by aligning himself with the Assyrians. He is confronted by the prophet Isaiah who invites him to ask for a sign from the ever-faithful God of the people. But he resists because, wearied in spirit and fatigued from battle, he can’t trust in an invisible promise. But God’s faithfulness provides a sign anyway – not one sign but actually two. First, there was the birth of Ahaz’s own son which guaranteed that the line of David would continue. But more important was the ultimate sign of God’s love and care for all people, because despite our weariness and poor choices, God gives us Emmanuel, the promised One.
What is the spirit of Joseph as recorded in the Scriptures today? Joseph is a man burdened with heavy concerns about Mary his spouse. With struggle and difficulty, he has made up his mind to resolve this awkward situation as quietly and lovingly as he can. But then, like Ahaz, he is confronted by a messenger of God. And with open mind and willing heart, he risks believing in his dream and then living it into a future. He, with faith and trusting expectation, joins with Mary in bringing to birth God’s presence among us – Emmanuel!…
As you come to the end of this Advent season: Do you identify with Ahaz or Joseph and Mary? Do you come with a spirit of weariness, afraid to trust in signs, unable to imagine a different future? Or, do you come with the spirit of a dreamer who believes that God continues to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, coming in ways unknown before and in ways unexpected?
The opening lines of today’s Gospel passage sound ordinary enough, “This is how the birth of Jesus came about.” – rather matter of fact, don’t you think? But let’s not let any of the infancy stories in either Matthew or Luke fool us. And let’s not be lulled into sentimentality as we reflect and preach on these passages. The narratives of Jesus’ birth are crammed with language and imagery that reflect the early church’s faith and the proclamation of this faith. The stories are proclaiming faith to us.
The birth narratives in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures have common features. An angel bears the news, gives the name the child is to have and what role the person is to fulfil on behalf of God. Matthew’s narrative makes it quite clear that it is God who is at work in all that is about to happen – “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” God has a plan formed long ago and has chosen humans to bring this plan to reality.
The primary emphasis in this passage is not the manner of Jesus’ conception. Rather, Matthew is stressing the name and the mission of the child, and thus, the significance of his life and its meaning for us. God chooses the child’s name and it reveals much about the child’s identity and role. His name is to be Jesus, a name (similar to Joshua), which means, “God helps,” or “God saves.” The angel reinforces that Jesus’ identity will be consonant to his name, “…because he will save his people from their sins.” Thus, when the child grows into adulthood, all who encounter him will experience God’s reconciling love. All he does and says will be about “saving” us… Our lives are not just about ourselves, but we are a part of a community that embraces all peoples.
Matthew’s Gospel with its emphasis on community shows strong Jewish roots. The Jews were saved from slavery and brought to freedom as a people. Thus, we are reminded that we are not saved as individuals, but as a community. God sees our human situation, that we are islands of isolation. We act for our own interests without regard for the horrendous consequences to ourselves, the environment and to our world – depression, segregation, materialism, over consumption of resources, militarism, suspicion of those different from us, ethnic violence, etc. There is much from which we need saving. Through Jesus we are drawn out of our sinful isolation into communities of love and light. His name assures that this chosen one of God will accomplish what we cannot do ourselves; he will save us. He will set out to dissolve our sinful isolation by building a community whose hallmarks include; love for one another, inclusion of all, forgiveness and reconciliation, care for the most vulnerable, etc. These are just some of the signs of a “saved community,” signs that, as Jesus preached, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew is writing for a community of Christians which mainly consists of Jewish converts. Thus, these converts would immediately recognize the angel’s expanded message. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” The identity and role of Jesus is reinforced by Matthew, so that his converts wouldn’t miss the Isaiah allusion, for he adds the explanation, “which means ‘God is with us.’” When life is tough we can feel alone and forgotten by God. Those with faith in the Emmanuel-to-be-born need only to look to him as a sign that God has not forgotten us, that “God is with us.”