4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 22, 2013
Matt 3: 1-12
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Matt 1: 18).
Christmas hasn’t quite come yet, of course. But it’s very near, and today the Church offers us St. Matthew’s version of our Savior’s birth. It’s not as romantic as St. Luke’s, which we read spread over 2 of the 3 Masses of Christmas, celebrate in so many carols, and represent in crèche scenes.
Matthew’s version of Christ’s birth agrees with Luke’s in 3 essential points.
The 1st is that the coming of Jesus of Nazareth fulfills God’s promises, fulfills the prophecies made to Israel. Two of those prophecies come into play in our readings this morning. The 1st is the obvious one about a virgin giving birth (following the Greek translation of Isaiah’s Hebrew). Matthew explicitly connects Mary’s virginal conception to what Isaiah said to King Ahaz in our 1st reading (7:10-14). The 2d prophecy is more subtle, but important enuf that it was a vital part of all the early preaching of the Church, e.g., in the opening lines of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that Jesus is the Christ “descended from David according to the flesh” (1:3). In Joseph’s dream-revelation, the angel addresses him as “Joseph, son of David” and tells him to take Mary as his wife and to name the boy Jesus. That is, by exercising his paternal right of naming, to acknowledge publicly and legally that the child is his, and thus likewise a descendant of David, the One, then, who will bring to fulfillment the promises to David that God made 1,000 years earlier.
|Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Peru|
There is teaching here that God is faithful to his word. He does what he promises to do. According to our reckoning, we’d have to say he does so slowly and deliberately. “With him one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as a day” (2 Pet 3:8). And he may do so in an unusual way, a mysterious way, a surprising way. Haven’t we often found that to be so in our own lives, our own spiritual journeys?
The 2d essential point of agreement between Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth is that Mary has conceived the One who will save us from our sins without any human intervention. Neither Joseph nor any male is the father of this child— only God himself.
Many “modern” readers wish to read the virgin birth not as history but as myth, as some sort of theological symbol. There is theology there, to be sure; but it is no myth, no mere symbol. On the negative side, if we can’t believe this—that “all things are possible with God,” as Gabriel tells Mary in Luke’s story (1:37)—why should we believe God can do anything? If we measure God only by our own puny possibilities, to quote St. Paul in another context, “we are of all people the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
On the positive side, it’s evident that Matthew and Luke use 2 very independent sources for their information about the birth of Jesus (as well as at other points in their gospels). But they are in agreement in this point that is at once so outlandish as to be inconceivable (pun intended!). Why include it at all if there were no factual basis for it? Mark and John wrote their gospels without any need to speak of Jesus’ birth (altho John can be read to imply the virgin birth when he writes of those who are God’s children not “by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” [1:13]). It’s entirely credible that a family tradition, an oral tradition, closely guarded for many years, found its way in 2 separate forms to Matthew and Luke, or to the final editors of the gospels that we attribute to them—a tradition rooted in Mary and Joseph’s authentic experience and, by the end of the 1st century, seen by the Church as having great bearing on the mystery of our salvation.
The 3d point of agreement between Matthew and Luke is that this child is both divine and human. The Virgin is truly and completely his mother. But since God is his Father, he is “God with us,” Emmanuel. As God he will be able to deal with our sins, to save us, as no mere human being could do. As human, he can atone for what humans have done and can make humanity right again with God.
Unlike Luke, Matthew tells the birth story from Joseph’s perspective. He is the one who must go along with God’s plan by “taking Mary into [his] home as [his] wife” (1:20). Unless he does that, and names the boy (1:21), the child will not be a son of David. It seems that Mary wasn’t of David’s lineage, probably not even of the tribe of Judah, if Luke is accurate in identifying her as a kinswoman of Elizabeth, a “daughter of Aaron” (Luke 1:5), a Levite. (Interesting: by his mother’s heritage, Jesus would thus be of priestly blood, tho that had no legal standing in his time.)
Joseph is the “just man,” the man who is right with God; in biblical terms, he’s a lover of God’s Law and observes it. According to Matthew, that’s his motivation for ending his betrothal to Mary, more than the natural feeling of having been betrayed. In that sense, Joseph offers us a model for determining our own course of action in difficult circumstances: not by how hurt or offended or angry we might be, but by discerning what God would have us do.
At the same time, Joseph’s a compassionate man. He won’t apply the full rigors of the Law to the one who, to all appearances, has committed adultery. We may speculate about why—his genuine love for Mary, his wanting to believe her story—did she try to explain it to him? In any case, while he’s an observer of the Law, he’s not heartless and won’t expose her to public shame (1:19), however much embarrassment might come to both of them in small-town life from the breaking of the betrothal, and he won’t leave her liable perhaps to stoning like the woman dragged before Jesus in John 8. He’s not heartless like those experts in the Law whom Jesus will later denounce for “tying up heavy burdens and laying them on people’s shoulders, but not lifting a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4). Righteousness before God involves a balance between Law and mercy, a delicate balance so hard to discern and to apply, whether in civil society or in pastoral practice —as people both in and out of the Church are discovering in these days as we watch and listen to Pope Francis.
Finally, Joseph the righteous man does what God commands. He is an observer of the Law, and more. Like Abraham the just, he asks no questions of God. He acts, immediately. We who take a vow of obedience—we don’t read that Joseph vowed obedience, do we?—how often do we hesitate, grumble, object, and sometimes fudge the issue? How often do we resist what God is pointing us to?
Joseph acts “as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (1:24), and God brings salvation into the world. God is still bringing salvation into the world, to each of us and thru each of us, if we believe his word and are ready to act on his word.