Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 19, 2004
Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24
1) The celebration of Christmas is less than a week away, and the Church, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, gives us TWO NAMES to guide us on this home stretch. The names are essential for us to capture the true “reason for the season.” They also contain within them the lessons for us how best to prepare and respond to the realities they indicate.
2) The two names both refer, unsurprisingly, to Christ. The first was chosen by God the Father over 700 years before His Son took flesh in Mary’s womb. The prophet Isaiah announced: “Hear, then, O House of Israel. … The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son and shall call him Emmanuel” (first reading). Seven centuries later, in describing the miraculous events of Jesus’ conception and birth, St. Matthew wrote, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (today’s Gospel). Then apostle then tells us what the name means: “God is with us.”
3) “God-is-with-us.” Since the time the prophecy was given about this name, the Jews thought that a child born of a young woman would be a SYMBOL that God was “with them” in the sense of being “on their side.” The Messiah, a son of David according to the flesh, would, they thought, be this instantiation of God’s solicitude. They would never have been able to fathom that God was intending to fulfill that prophetic title LITERALLY. God, the Creator, was going to take on the nature of his creature. God himself was going to enter the human race, and be “descended from David according to the flesh,” the same David he had chosen centuries before to be anointed as King of Israel.
4) But there was a clear PURPOSE to God’s PRESENCE. That is given to us in the second name we encounter in today’s Gospel. The angel tells St. Joseph, Mary “will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” This name, Jesus (the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Jeshua), means “God saves,” and the angel tells Joseph quite clearly what this infant will save the Jews from: “he will save his people from their sins.” God-is-with-us, therefore, for the purpose of saving-us-from-our sins. The Son of God didn’t become God-with-us merely to “hang with us,” as the teenage colloquialism goes, but to hang FOR us. He took upon our human nature so that he could give that nature as an expiation for our sins. But not only does the name Jesus interpret the name Emmanuel, but the name Jesus also makes possible Emmanuel, because Jesus saved us from our sins so that we could be much more fully WITH HIM who came to be WITH US. Our sins prevent communion with God and hence Jesus, in coming to save us from them, was making possible the fulfillment of the prophetic name Emmanuel.
5) This truth, however, is not meant to be merely intellectual or merely historical. Emmanuel means “God IS with us,” not “God WAS with us.” Jesus means that “God saves,” not “God saved.” Our sharing in the mystery of Christmas, therefore, depends on whether we enter IN THE PRESENT into THIS SALVIFIC PRESENCE. The two titles point to the greatest gift we’ll receive this Christmas, but the question is whether we’ll receive the gift, open it up, and take advantage of it.
6) “Jesus” indicates that God came to save us from our sins, and Jesus founded a sacrament on Easter Sunday evening to do so, but we need to respond to that offer of merciful love. So many Catholics receive that gift but leave it as an unopened package in the corners of their lives. That’s one of the reasons why their celebration of Christmas isn’t nearly as joyful as God wants it to be. Our appreciation for Jesus’ coming into the world is directly dependent on whether we realize we need him — that we’re sinners in need of so benign a savior. Jesus is like the world’s greatest oncologist walking into a cancer ward. The path to healing is for each patient to allow the doctor to operate and surgically excise the cancer. The path to healing is for each patient to follow his instructions to eliminate the various carcinogens that put one’s life in danger. Jesus, who created us without our will, won’t save us against our will. Each of us must recognize that need for salvation and come to receive it in the way that Jesus himself set it up. The divine physician will be seeing his patients this week in the operating room of the confessional. The times for his office hours are listed in the bulletin. Our Christmas joy will be directly proportional to our REALIZATION of Jesus as savior and our RECEPTION of Jesus as savior.
7) Jesus, moreover, is “God-with-us”, and there was no expiration date to his presence. In fact, prior to his Ascension into heaven, he told us, “Know that I am with you always, until the end of time” (Mt 28:20). Jesus of course is with us in many ways — through creation, through grace, through Sacred Scripture, through his image in others, through those he ordained to act in his very person, through his mystical body, the Church. But there is one way above all others by which Christ remains with us: in his body and blood. The Eucharist is Emmanuel, God-with-us. The same God who was in Mary’s womb we receive in our bodies at Holy Communion. The same Jesus whom the wise men traveled such great distances over several months to adore we have the same privilege to worship — and all we have to do is hop in our cars and drive short distances. The question is whether we take that presence of Jesus seriously or whether we take it for granted.
8 ) The Mass is the greatest privilege this side of heaven, when we have the chance to do something that those present in Bethlehem couldn’t even dream of. They were able to worship the God-man on the “outside,” in the stable. We have the chance to receive him and worship him INSIDE. I remember very well when this truth struck me to the core of my existence during my freshman year in college. After recognizing that in the Mass we receive the Son of God within us and that there is no greater privilege in the whole world than receiving God, I asked myself, “Is attending Mass something that I should be doing only because I HAVE to, or is it something I should be doing because I WANT to?” I then made it more particular: “If the Mass is celebrated every day, shouldn’t I be taking advantage of this incredible gift every day?” It was then that I started to attend daily Mass and my life was changed forever.
9) Jesus established the sacrament of the Eucharist so that he who is God-with-us could be with us in a communion of love. He makes himself present to us every day. The Church he founded teaches him that we have the obligation to come to Mass on Sundays and holy days, but that minimum does not have to become our maximum. No one, after all, was OBLIGED to go to Bethlehem to adore Christ, but if we had the chance, wouldn’t have we have interrupted what we were doing to travel to that sacred stable? If so, then we should make the effort to head to the new Bethlehem to adore the same infant Savior whenever we can.
10) The Holy Father, on behalf of his Boss, has called on each of us to live an “intensely Eucharistic year,” which means that he’s calling us to live an intensely Eucharistic Christmas. He’s calling us to see the connection between the Lord who was placed in the manger and the Lord who is placed in our hands and mouths and then placed in the tabernacle. And he’s asking us to make Christ in the Eucharist the “magnetic pole” of our entire lives. He specifically suggests that each of us focus, above all, on two realities. The first is to allow the reality of what occurs in the Mass to assume an ever greater influence in our lives. The second is to grow in “Eucharistic amazement” and spend time in Eucharistic adoration. The tabernacle lamp is called to become the “Star of Bethlehem” in our lives, guiding us to the presence of the “newborn king of the Jews.” Each of us is called to ask whether the real presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle has any impact at all on our lives, or whether we live, practically, as if the tabernacle were empty or just full of bread. If we truly believe that God-is-with-us in the tabernacle, then our daily and weekly schedules will bear witness to it. The joy we experience at Christmas will be dependent upon whether we take Emmanuel seriously and strive to come to be with God who did so much and became so humble to be with us.
11) Most of us have already prepared gifts for many people, and this is good and a tangible expression of our Christian love for others. But all of these good deeds should not get us to forget the need to prepare the best gift for the divine Birthday Boy. What would probably please him most would be if we appreciated and took advantage of the great gifts he has given us in the two sacraments by which he becomes Jesus and Emmanuel to us personally.
12) Jesus, Emmanuel, is coming. May we greet him, sincerely, by name! And through the prayers of Mary and Joseph, may we develop the type of personal relationship with Jesus that they had, so that we might experience his salvation and be with him in this world and forever in the next. Amen.