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Reflections for the IV Sunday of Advent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the fourth Sunday Advent. He says that loving, responsive obedience to God as modeled for us by St. Joseph is the central theme of the readings, with special emphasis on the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mat 1:18-24

Homily starter anecdote: Emmanuel - God with us: Over 100 years ago Father Damien deVeuster, (St. Damien of Molokai) a Belgian priest, began working with lepers on Molokai, a small Hawaiian island. Father Damien found a source of fresh water in the mountains and developed a system to bring it down to the colony. He built the first sanitation system and clinic. He and the lepers constructed a chapel for worship. Each Sunday Father Damien would begin his sermon with these words: “You lepers know that God loves you.” This went on for years. Finally, one Sunday Father Damien began his sermon this way: “We lepers know that God loves us.” Father Damien had contracted leprosy. Yet he went on loving and serving until his death in 1898. Even as Father Damien cast his lot in with the lepers, Jesus, Emmanuel, invested Himself totally in us sinners. “He was bruised and wounded for our sins. He was lashed, and we were healed.”  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’” (Mt 1: 22-23). (Dr. William R. Bouknight). (https://www.frtonyshomilies.com).

Scripture lessons summarized: In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives a sign from God to King Ahaz of Judah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Is 7:14).  Matthew considers this prophecy as one of the most descriptive and definite prophecies foretelling the future Messianic King, the Christ, to be born as a descendant of David.  In the second reading, Paul also asserts that Jesus was a descendant of David and thus the Messiah: “from David according to the flesh(Rom 1:3). Paul explains that the only begotten Son of God, become Incarnate as Jesus, was revealed and established by the Father as Son of God in power by his Resurrection from the dead.  Then Paul provides a sweeping summary of God’s mighty acts in history through Jesus Christ.  Today’s Gospel, from Matthew, focuses on the person and role of Joseph. For Jesus to fulfill the Messianic prophecy given by Isaiah, Joseph had to accept Jesus as his son, making Jesus a legal descendant of David because Joseph was a descendant of David.  Hence, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was not the biological child of Joseph.  But because Joseph was the husband of Mary at the time Jesus was born, Jesus was legally the son of Joseph and thus a descendant of David. 

The first reading (Is 7:10-14 explained: God had promised (2 Samuel 7:14) an unending dynasty to David. Hence the Israelites hung their hopes for a coming messiah (anointed king) whose reign would restore the peace and prosperity for which they longed. But the undivided kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon was divided at Solomon’s death in the late eighth century BC, into a northern kingdom, Israel, and a southern kingdom, Judah. Assyria, the dominant power in the region controlled, among other lands, Israel and Syria. These two liege states were planning to rebel against Assyria.  Their kings pressured Judah’s King Ahaz, the eleventh Jewish king of Judah in ten years (735 to 715 BC), to join them. [See 2 Kg 16 ff and 2 Chronicles 28 for Ahaz’ history.]  When he refused, they began to plot to overthrow him by attacking Judah. Instead of trusting in God, Ahaz planned to ask from the pagan Assyrian king, help for holding his throne, a request which later led to the overthrow of the kingdom of Judah. Confident that his God, Yahweh, would protect Judah and its king, the prophet Isaiah told Ahaz to have Faith in Yahweh and not to ally himself with Assyria. But Ahaz wouldn’t listen. He was determined to go ahead with his alliance.  (In order to appease the Assyrians, Ahaz had replaced the altar in the Temple with an Assyrian altar and had sacrificed his firstborn son to the Assyrian god Moloch).  Isaiah told Ahaz that the Lord wanted him to ask God for a sign of the truth of what Isaiah was saying.   Ahaz had already made up his mind to rely on Assyria. So, he refused to ask for a sign, using the excuse that it would be “tempting God” to do so. In frustration, Isaiah announced God’s sign anyway, the birth from a virgin of a son, whose very name, “Emmanuel” (“God is with us”), would assure everyone that God was really with His people.

Matthew understands the passage from Isaiah as promising the birth of an ideal descendant of David, the Messiah. Despite Matthew’s citation from Isaiah, Isaiah probably wasn’t consciously prophesying Jesus’ birth in Is 7:10-14, and certainly was not foretelling that birth exclusively.  The Lord God, through Isaiah, was giving King Ahaz a sign, which had to be recognized instantly, not 700 years later in Jesus. Besides, the Hebrew word almah which we translate as “virgin,” meant only a woman who had not yet delivered a baby.  Hence, the almah Isaiah mentions probably would be Ahaz’ wife, Abia, and the Emmanuel would be their soon-to-be-born son Hezekiah.  In the birth of the child, God proved himself once again to be Emmanuel; God-with-us. The promised son of Ahaz would be faithful to Yahweh and would institute a series of religious reforms that would undo many of Ahaz’ accommodations to Assyrian religious practices. Hence, many modern Bible scholars do not believe that the immediate identities of Isaiah’s “virgin” and “Emmanuel” were Mary and Jesus. But on a fuller level of meaning, the Isaian prophecy has been understood to apply to the birth of Jesus. As is reflected in today’s Matthean gospel, the early Church realized that the Israel’s centuries’ old messianic aspirations and God’s promise to David were finally and completely fulfilled only in his coming. That prophecies, the work of the Holy Spirit, can have several fulfillments often centuries apart is axiomatic in the Church, which relies on the Holy Spirit as her Guardian against error, as Jesus promised would be the case. The Letter to the Hebrews provides multiple instances of this kind of reading of Biblical texts. Matthew’s citation, which does identify the “Virgin” as Mary and “Emmanuel” as Jesus, provides what is probably the final fulfillment of the prophecy.

The second reading (Romans 1:1-7 explained: The reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans also emphasizes that Jesus was a descendant of David and thus the Messiah [” descended from David according to the flesh(Rom 1: 3).]  At the beginning of this letter, Paul briefly summarizes the Gospel, the core of Christian faith, as including two things.  One is that that the only-begotten Son of God, become Incarnate as Jesus, was a descendant of the line of David; the second is that Jesus was revealed and established by the Father as Son of God in power by his Resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ birth is significant because of his death and Resurrection for our salvation. 

The Christian congregation in Rome was small, not yet persecuted and still meeting in someone’s home. These were the first-generation converts - some Jewish, some Gentile.  Paul was introducing himself to the Romans in this letter, and he was establishing his authority as God’s Apostle. That was necessary because the Church in Rome did not know Paul personally, having heard only that he was a former persecutor turned Apostle.  In the first sentence, Paul describes himself as “set apart to proclaim the Gospel ...,” and later, “favored with Apostleship.”   The rest of the introduction is a summary of the Gospel and of the Divine Plan Paul serves.  Paul sees how Jesus’ coming and his own mission to non-Jews is prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Paul does not use the name Emmanuel for Jesus, but he does provide a sweeping summary of God’s mighty acts in history through Jesus Christ.

Gospel (Matthew 1:18-24) Exegesis: While Mary is featured prominently in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Matthew brings Joseph to the forefront, because Jesus becomes part of David’s lineage through Joseph (1:1-17).  Luke tells us of Mary’s obedience (Luke 1:38) and Matthew of Joseph’s obedience.  Luke tells the story of the angel’s appearance to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), but Matthew tells us only that the child was from the Holy Spirit.  But why does the Church couple Ahaz with Joseph in today’s readings?  Because of the stark contrast between the two men, each faced with a difficult situation.  One of them, Ahaz, relied on his own wits and schemes.  Joseph relied on God alone and trusted in Him absolutely. One of them sacrificed his own son to appease others and showed no mercy.  The other spent his life in protecting his foster-son.  And so we see Joseph, in sharp contrast to Ahaz in the background, as the just and righteous man that he is. 

Crisis in the family: Jewish marriage started with an engagement arranged by parents, often between children.  Just prior to marriage, couples began a year-long betrothal very much like marriage except for sexual rights.  Betrothal was binding and could be terminated only by death or divorce.  A person whose betrothed had died was considered to be a widow or widower. Joseph found that Mary was pregnant without his knowledge.  Now, the law required that Mary be stoned to death, because she would have been considered an unfaithful wife, and the baby would have been stoned to death with her.  In Deuteronomy 22:23-24, the penalty for adultery was death by stoning at the door of her father’s house as she had disgraced her father. Since Joseph was a just man of great mercy, he resolved to divorce Mary quietly so that he might not cause her unnecessary pain.  In doing so, he shows us Christ-like compassion in the face of sin.  He also demonstrates a Godly balance between the Law of Torah and the Law of Love.  And then in a dream he learned that the Child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he himself was to be the foster-father of the Christ, claiming the Child by naming Him, and then rearing Him.  Joseph, through trust and Faith in God, accepted his mission as the foster-father of the Son of God.

God’s message through His angel: This is the first of three occasions on which an angel appears to Joseph in a dream.   In each instance, the angel calls Joseph to action and Joseph obeys.  Joseph doesn’t have a speaking part.  In this first instance, the angel commands Joseph to take Mary as his wife.   In Mt 2:13, the angel will tell Joseph to take the mother and child to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.  In Mt  2:19, the angel will, at the death of Herod, tell Joseph to return to Israel.  The angel begins by saying, “Joseph, son of David,” alerting us to Joseph’s lineage.  It is through Joseph that Jesus will be of the house and lineage of David.  Mary’s role is to bear a son, and Joseph’s role is to name him.  By naming him, Joseph makes Jesus his son and brings him into the house of David. After each of the three angelic apparitions in his dreams, Joseph obeys the angel’s commands without question or pause.  His hallmark is obedience—prompt, simple, and unspectacular obedience.  And in this sense, Joseph prefigures the Gospel of Matthew’s understanding of righteousness:  to be righteous is simply to obey the Word of God. Joseph’s obedience allows Jesus to be adopted as a true Son of David; it is Mary’s role that allows Jesus to be born Son of God.  In the end, Joseph obediently took Mary as his wife, in spite of his fears, and he claimed her Son as his own by naming him. In spite of his earlier decision to divorce this woman quietly, Joseph nurtured, protected, watched over and loved both Mary and her Child. 

Virgin Birth: In order to emphasize the traditional Christian belief that Jesus did not have a human father; the Christian tradition always taught the revealed truth that the conception of Jesus by Mary was from the Holy Spirit. The main biblical text supporting this teaching is Isiah 7: 14: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Matthew and early Christians understood Mary as the Virgin and Jesus as the Son in the prophecy. It means that the prophecy had an original fulfillment and a final fulfillment.  The prophecy found its original fulfillment in Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz and his wife, Abia. So, in the Gospel reading for today, where Matthew 1:23 cites Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel,” as the explanation for the events he has just related, the full meaning of parthenos (the Greek translation of the Hebrew word almah used by Isiah) makes it plain that the final fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy was to be found in Mary as the untouched Virgin who, by the power of God, gave birth to Jesus as Emmanuel without a human partner. “The doctrine of the Virgin Birth of the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man is crucial to our Redemption (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27, 34). First, let’s look at how Scripture describes the event. In response to Mary’s question, “How will this be?” (Luke 1:34), Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). The angel encourages Joseph to not fear marrying Mary with these words: “What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). Matthew states that the virgin “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Galatians 4:4 also teaches the Virgin Birth: “God sent His Son, born of a woman.” [Question of the Week.]

Almah and Parthenos: In the Old and New Testaments, there are two possibilities for the word we translate “virgin”: a Hebrew meaning and a Greek meaning.  In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word for “virgin” used in the Isaiah prophecy is “almah,” which simply means “young woman who has not yet delivered a baby.” But in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word used for “virgin” is parthenos, and it means someone who has not been sexually active with another person, who has never had sexual relationships with another. With the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, the Hebrew “almah” in Isaiah’s prophecy became the Greek parthenos and brought the more complete meaning of “virginity” in our terms, with it. In the Old Testament, virginity (meaning the state in a woman of never having had sexual intercourse), was highly prized.  A virgin was someone who was precious.  Rebecca was not merely a young woman; she was a virgin.  The Bible is very emphatic about that.  There were several laws to protect the virginity of women.  That is, parents made arrangements for their daughters to be married, and they expected their daughters to be virgins. In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’ And so, the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the ‘Ever-virgin.’ (CCC #499). “Christian tradition emphasizes a virgin birth (just as it emphasizes a virgin burial, a virgin tomb to parallel the virgin womb) not because it judges that sexuality is too impure and earthy to produce something holy. Rather, beyond wanting to emphasize that Jesus had no human father, the Christian tradition wants to emphasize what kind of heart and soul is needed to create the space wherein something divine can be born.” (Fr. Ron Rolheiser S. J.) “Virgin birth stories in the gospels are an affirmation of faith in the transcendental origin of Jesus’ history. (Fr. Reginald Fuller).

Jesus the Emmanuel: The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yehosua, which means ‘YHWH is salvation’.  The first Joshua, the successor of Moses, saved the people from their enemies.  The second Joshua (Jesus) will save the people from their sins.  The people did not expect a Messiah who would save them from their sins, but one who would deliver them from their oppressors.  The fulfillment of prophecy is important to Matthew.  He mentions fulfillment of prophecy eleven times (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).  In Hebrew, El is a short form of Elohim, a name for God.  Immanu-El means “God with us.”  Emmanuel describes Jesus’ role or vocation.  Jesus’ calling is to save his people from their sins and to manifest God’s presence. Matthew thus begins his Gospel with the promise that Jesus is God-with-us.  He will end the Gospel with the promise that Jesus will be with us “always, to the end of the age” (28:20).  Matthew understands that in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God is with us, reconciling the world to Himself.  He is the reassurance in the flesh that God has not given up on us, but will remain with us. The real event of Christmas is that God comes to change the world and each of us—not just through a historical, virginal conception and a baby lying in a manger, but through the God Who is with us today, shattering our self-righteous attitudes and seeking to move us beyond our fears, freeing us from our bondages.  

Life messages: 1) Like Joseph, we need to trust in God, listen to Him and be faithful.  We are here in this Church, a week before Christmas, because, like Joseph, we are faithful, and we trust in God, His power and His mercy.  Although we may face financial problems, job insecurity, family problems and health concerns let us try to be trusting and faithful like St. Joseph.   Instead of relying on our own schemes to get us through life, let us trust in God and be strengthened by talking to Him in fervent prayer and by listening to Him speaking through the Bible. Let us remain faithful and prayerful, imitating Joseph and Mary, the humblest of the humble, the kindliest of the kindly, and the greatest-ever believers in God’s goodness and mercy, as we welcome Jesus into our hearts and lives this Christmas. 

2)We need to experience Emmanuel in our lives and change the world: God who entered our world through Jesus some 2000 years ago is at work in the world.  But the question is, if God has come to be present in our lives and our world, then why are there so many lives which are unhappy and beastly?  Why are people so hostile, hating each other, and why do so many love-relationships turn sour? Why is there domestic violence? Why is there child abuse?  Why is there war in at least a dozen countries of God’s good earth at any given time?  Why are so many people homeless and hungry, even in rich countries?  The Good News, the consoling message of Christmas, is that the child Jesus still waits today to step into our hearts—your heart and mine—and to change us and the world around us by the beauty of God’s love, kindness, mercy and compassion.  Let us take some time to let the Christ Child enter our hearts and lives this week, so that He may change our world of miseries with the beauty of that love.

3) Do we have any gift for our “Birthday Boy?” Let us check to see if Jesus is on our list this Christmas and if we have a special gift in mind for him.   We all know the pleasure of finding the right present for our husband or wife, for our children, a good friend, a parent.  What special gift are we giving to Jesus this year to honor his birth, and what do we expect from God?  God sent Jesus from Heaven to earth to give us human beings what we really need most in life: hearts filled with love.  That is the gift which Jesus really wants from us, and that is what you and I really need from God this Christmas – a heart filled with love.  We have tons of wants.  We are like children with a catalogue before Christmas, circling all our wants by the dozens.  But we have one essential need:  a heart filled with love. God wants to give each of us a heart filled with love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness on this Christmas and every day of our lives.

4)   Let us be a Christmas gift to others: The greatest gift we can give to those we love, is to have faith in them, believe in their dreams, and try to help them realize them. We need to believe in the dreams of our husband, wife, children, parents, heroes, leaders and friends, then try our best to help them realize those dreams. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

19 December 2019, 11:12