Dear friends in Christ, the
period from 17th – 24th of December (2nd part of advent) brings a closer
sentiment of Christmas in the life of the Church. They are known as the 8 days
before Christmas. In these last eight days before Christmas, the relationship
between the readings change. Now the gospel brings us to our celebration of
Christmas. The gospels are taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew and
Luke. Each of these days, the first reading is taken from the Hebrew Scripture,
and chosen to match the gospel. In many cases, we can imagine Matthew or Luke
having the first reading open on their desks while they wrote the gospel. The
sense of anticipation and fulfilment builds as we read the story of the
preparation for Jesus’ first coming into this world for us.
The coming of Christ, as
understood from the Scripture, was as a result of His obedience to His Father’s
Will. This is well explained by Paul in his letter to the Philippians 2:6-11,
as an example for the Philippian community to emulate (Though Jesus was God, He
became humble, and learnt to obey through suffering and death on the Cross). In
consonance, the parents of Jesus (Joseph and Mary) were obedient to the will of
God in order to realize the coming of the Saviour. Today’s Gospel reveals
something very significant (the virtue of obedience) in the life of Joseph,
which we shall examine in this reflection.
Today being 18th of December, the
readings focus on the story of the Virgin Birth. In the First Reading, God
gives a sign through the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz of Judah: “Behold, a
virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel”
(Isaiah 7:14) Matthew considers this one of the most descriptive and definite
prophecies foretelling that the future Messianic king, the Christ, would be
born as a descendant of David. What was the context of this? The Kingdom of
Israel was undivided under David and Solomon’s reign (until 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 Israel and
Syria, among other lands. 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 for
help in holding his throne from his overlord, the pagan Assyrian king, 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 instead, 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.
As a follow up, 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 predicting 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. The promised son of
Ahaz would be faithful and obedient 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.
The fact that prophecies in line with the work of the Holy Spirit, can have
several fulfilments 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 identifies
the “Virgin” as Mary and “Emmanuel” as Jesus, provides what is probably the
FINAL FULFILMENT of the prophecy.
The Second 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. What
was the context of this Pauline letter? 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, “favoured 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 understands that the virtue of obedience
was necessary for the mission brought about by Christ; he stresses out: “…Through
him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the OBEDIENCE OF
FAITH, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you
also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…”
In the Gospel Reading, 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.
Joseph was able to overcome the
crisis in the family due to his virtue of obedience to God. In those days,
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. After all, if Joseph had exposed Mary
publicly, he would be fulfilling the Law, but his attitude reflects the essence
of the Law, which is love. In doing so, he shows us a 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.
Why was the Obedience of Joseph
very important? 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
which was as a result of his prompt obedience to God.
Dear friends in Christ, like
Joseph, we need to trust in God, listen to Him (obey) 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
Happy 4th Sunday of Advent, Year


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Chinaka Justin Mbaeri

A staunch Roman Catholic and an Apologist of the Christian faith. More about him here.

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