Mar. 28, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"EMMANUEL, GOD IS WITH US" (Matt.1:23-24)

Today's readings present to us three key points: 1. The fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of the Isaiah in the New Testament. 2. The important role of Joseph in the salvation story and 3. The fulfillment of this promise of salvation in Jesus. 

First, we note that the prophecy of Isaiah about Jerusalem in the first reading comes at a time of crisis. Enemies invade Jerusalem and threaten to remove the King Ahaz. Do not imagine that Ahaz's response to Isaiah was a mark of belief in the power of God. Not at all. It was rather the contrary because Ahaz sought to rely on the mighty Assyria for salvation. That's why the prophet said, "Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?" The prophet tried to prove to the king of God's presence and sustenance for the Davidic dynasty. Thus, "Therefore, the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel" (Is.7:14). After all, the kingdom did continue with Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, who undertook religious reform in Israel and refused to serve the king of Assyria (2Kings 18:1-6). But the kingdom goes beyond Ahaz and his son in the prophecy of Isaiah. In the Book of Samuel, God spoke to David through the prophet Nathan, "And when the days are over and you fall asleep with your ancestors, I shall appoint you heir, your own son to succeed you. And I shall make his royal throne secure forever" (2Sam.712-13). 

Today's gospel presents us with story of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy. The evangelist Matthew announces how the birth of Jesus would come about. Joseph discovers that Mary was already pregnant before they came to live together. He is determined to send her away, then the angel appears to him in a dream. The words of the angel draw a relationship between the Old Testament prophecy and the continuation of David's dynasty. Joseph is addressed as "Joseph, son of David". The angel says to him, "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". In the child Jesus, the Kingdom of David is both being fulfilled and redeemed. Although Joseph is not responsible biologically for Jesus, he is involved in his parenthood. He is addressed as the "son of David", that means he's part of the great dynasty. 

Secondly, the angel bestows on Joseph a responsibility when he says, "She will bear a son and you must name him Jesus" (Matt.1:21-22). Joseph's responsibility is to declare God's saving presence through naming the infant Jesus. Commentators remark that the responsibility to name him bestows a right on Joseph to claim him as his own son. Such responsibility transfers on Jesus all the hereditary rights of a son which includes Joseph's Davidic descent. Saint Paul states in the second reading, "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" (Rom.1:3-4). That means that "Joseph, son of David", in this act of naming, would make Jesus a legal heir to David (cf. Mitch, C. & Sri, E., The Gospel of Matthew, p.44). 

The name the prophet Isaiah gives as proof of God's presence is "Emmanuel" which means "God is with us". Matthew recounts that the encounter between Joseph and the angel takes place to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means "God is with us". If we still go back to the Old Testament, we understand that the name "Joshua" which is the Hebrew root of "Jesus" means "Yahweh is salvation". The angel announces, "You shall name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins". Then the name Emmanuel points back to the fulfillment of the promise God made to David through Nathan, "Go, and do whatever you have in mind, for Yahweh is with you" (2Sam.7:3). Therefore, the child Jesus becomes the definitive fulfillment of the promise of God's salvation to his people, liberation from the terrorism of sin. 

Meanwhile, we have to appreciate the role of Joseph in the salvation narrative. Joseph symbolizes obedience to God's will. He portrays the model for married life and the role of men in family life. The fact that Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant before coming to live with him was enough not to listen to any voice on Mary's behalf. The question I ask is, "What if Joseph had divorced Mary? What if he refused to listen to the angel? Joseph could have queried like any other husband what the story of becoming pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit was all about. He would have thrown Mary out after all. He would have doubted the authenticity of story of conception as a virgin. His first reaction was to divorce her quietly. Joseph had great reputation and wanted to save it. He recognized also the dignity of the woman whom he had taken to be his wife. He didn't want to ridicule her having found out that she was pregnant. Prior to the angel's revelation, the conclusion would be to claim that the lady was unfaithful. If that was the case, she needed to be disgraced. Joseph did not do that. He wanted to send Mary away quietly. But above all, he listened to the voice of the angel and took Mary into his home. He left behind a standard for husbands to emulate in marriage. 

I wish to use this opportunity to give the following advice to the men:

  1. Guard against rash decisions in the face of difficulties in your marriage. Take time to reflect on what God wants you to do, not necessarily what you wish to do. The challenges of marriage are real but useful solutions come from listening.
  2. Be careful of the voices you listen to. Listen to the voice of God. Truly, God speaks to every person, you only have to be able to discern. Joseph heard God’s voice in a dream, you might hear yours through good and spiritual friends. God’s voice is heard in the quiet moments of lives. Consult inspirational books, listen to inspirational talks, make time to go to church in those difficult moments. God will speak to you too. And when he speaks, obey.
  3. Don’t be selfish. Like Joseph, one key to healthy marriage is to consider the interest of your spouse. If Joseph was selfish, he would have divorced Mary before even hearing the voice of the angel. Be considerate in the treatment of your wife, solutions come when both think and pray over marriage problems.
  4. Don’t play the perfect man. Although Joseph was innocent, he respected Mary’s feelings. It’s important to respect and recognize the feelings of your wife in marriage. Always be ready to hear her out. That way, no one plays the perfect spouse card. Even the best husband makes mistakes. 

Let us learn from today's readings that God is with us. God does not abandon us in difficult moments. The kingdom of David suffered crisis especially in the time of the King Ahaz, God's presence never deserted them after all. That Kingdom is still with us today in Christ the Emmanuel. The name Emmanuel means support, compassion, grace, love and mercy. It means that God searches us out in the very tough moments. Saint Paul invites us to "obedience of faith", that's the best way to know that God is with us. One of my friends called me yesterday and was crying about the challenges she is facing. Suddenly, her car stopped and kept her on the way. She said she barely finished saying to herself that she was fed up with Jesus because of the many challenges she was facing, when her car started producing a queasy sound. This was under this crushing cold weather. She was almost weeping as she talked to me. I want to tell you wherever you are now and such persons in similar situations that God is with you. The Psalm says, "For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the enemy. And from the deadly pestilence, he will save you" (Ps.91:3). May Christ the Emmanuel be with us always. Amen.