The Fourth Sunday of Advent introduces us to Emmanuel, the name of the child-to-be-born of Joseph and Mary. Although this is more of a functionary title than a name for the Savior, the name harkens back to the Old Testament, providing a context for understanding. Ahaz, the King of Judah, was instructed to ask God for a sign though he was afraid to do so, so a sign was given: “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” As a king of Judah Ahaz was a descendant of King David.
The Gospel proclamation introduces us to a righteous man named Joseph who is also given a sign: “Joseph, son of David, 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. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
We are told that he, though confused and likely disappointed that Mary was with child, exercised deep compassion and refused to expose her sin to public shame.
When the angel appears to him in a dream, and instructs him that the child to be born has been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph acts immediately to take her into his home as his wife. Although the Gospel records nothing of what he said, we get a sense of the power of his faith. Joseph reminds us of the important figures of Jewish history in whose lineage he stands. Most importantly, Joseph is a descendant of King David, a man whose faith in God was unwavering.
“Name the child Jesus,” Joseph is told, for he will “save his people from their sins.” The mission of Jesus is announced at the very beginning. Jesus is focused on salvation, on bringing us, his people, to eternal life. For Matthew Jesus accomplishes our salvation through his fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, culminating in his Resurrection from the dead.
Specifically, Matthew tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz.
Joseph is told that the child to be born would be called Emmanuel (Immanuel) – “God is with us.” This takes us even beyond the prophecy itself – God will visit his people in the person of the Davidic Messiah. This is another prophetic realization: Jesus is the Son of God. We saw this first in the announcement that the child would be born of the power of the Holy Spirit and now with the association of the child with the prophecy of Isaiah.
Joseph, awakening from the dream, understood what he had to do. Whatever reservations he had regarding taking on the responsibility of raising this child of Mary his wife have been put aside.
We can see, then, that this simple passage in Matthew’s Gospel stands as a miniaturization of the entire Gospel of Matthew. What we know of the life and mission of Jesus us outlined here as God reveals to Joseph all that must be done in order to bring about the salvation of all humanity.
As we approach Christmas, let us take time to consider Joseph as a model of faith and how we are to respond to the call to discipleship in our own lives. He is certainly much more than the plastic figure in our nativity scenes.
Dec. 25 – Jesus Christ leads us to overcome alienation in the world
As we celebrate this great Solemnity of the Nativity of our Lord we are struck with the starkness of the event itself. Forced into dank stench of an animal shelter to spend the night and, ultimately, to give birth, Mary and Joseph stand as a reminder to us of the struggles of millions of people in our world today. This young family is on the road as simple travelers returning to the town of Joseph’s family, Bethlehem, a mere six miles from Jerusalem.
This ancient city, the home of King David, was then still a small village and rather insignificant in the economy of the Roman occupied territory. Today, due to the singular event we celebrate today, Bethlehem is a more well-known community. Its notoriety is solely built upon the presence there of the Church of the Nativity, the oldest continually operating church in the entire world.
Jesus is born an outcast. Jews were forbidden to cohabitate with animals and always provided separate living quarters for themselves apart from the animal stalls or mangers. Jesus is born in the filth and stench of a barn. This would leave him immediately “unclean” and therefore ritually impure from the moment of his birth. Often in his ministry Jesus could be thought of as ritually unclean – he touches lepers, eats with public sinners, speaks with Samaritans, and includes women to whom he is not related in his ministry and travels.
This simple child we see lying in our manger scenes is already in anticipation of his Death on the Cross. He is born on the outside and, though his life will appear to be normal in many ways, he will remain on the fringes of that society and its usual norms for the rest of his life.
Many people today appeal to Jesus and this scene as we encounter the struggles in the world with refugees who live as outcasts, as people with no home or heritage. This is especially true for the people who live in Bethlehem, where the Palestinians are without country and lack many of the essential freedoms we take for granted.
While there is a call for justice that these situations demand in our world, Jesus is more than one of them. He stands with them, but he does so not as a passive member but as a savior. While many will want the savior to be a political revolutionary, whether in his time or our own, the truth is that he chose not to take that path. Rather, the savior born in the most humble of all circumstances stands with us as an outcast to save us from and lead us out of the sinful conditions that stand as the source of our alienation.
All of us are unclean, all of us are alienated. We are separated from God, we are alienated even from those whom we love, we are disharmonious with nature; we are internally conflicted. All of these situations reflect the consequences of sin – Original Sin and Actual Sin – that disrupts our lives every day. By his Birth into alienation, separation and uncleanness, Jesus takes our condition upon himself, carries it throughout his life, and crucifies it on the Cross with himself, thus bringing the state of alienation to an end, and restoring all things to God.
We live, then, in light of the promise and the hope that this great feast celebrates. God-made-man restores and renews our humanity, so that we might live in the light of life eternal. The manger always points to the Cross, the Son always points to the Father; the Church always points to Christ.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.[[In-content Ad]]