Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Joseph Parish, Fall River, MA
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
December 18, 2016
Is 7:10-14, Ps 24, Rom 1:1-7, Mt 1:18-24
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
- We are a week before Christmas and the response that the Church is trying to provoke in us during this home stretch of the Advent Season is encapsulated, as it normally is, by the Responsorial Psalm: “Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.”
- Throughout this Psalm 24, it talks about raising gates: “Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter.” This points to the fact that the gates of the Temple of Jerusalem were too small to permit the entrance of the Ark of the Covenant, which was interpreted at the time as if the people in Jerusalem were not yet ready to receive God into their temple. And as we prepare for the great feast of the Lord in a week, the Church is seeking to make us ready to welcome the Savior. Many times, we know, we only open ourselves up a little to receive God. The Psalm today is exhorting us not to hold back, but to open ourselves totally to accept God as he comes.
- The two great ways that he wants to come to us at Christmas are shown in the two names given to us by God himself by which we are to refer to him. Like any name, it allows us to be able to call upon the Son of God and have a personal relationship with him. And these two names help us to ground our relationship with him on what he seeks to do in us.
- The first name we encounter is Emmanuel. There’s a dramatic scene in today’s first reading. Isaiah the prophet goes to see King Ahaz of Judah during the time when the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, is being sieged by the kingdoms of Israel (Ephraim) and Syria. Ahaz is about to make an alliance with the brutal kingdom of Assyria so that the Assyrians will come to liberate Jerusalem. Isaiah goes to Ahaz to tell him not to seal that Alliance, but to have more trust in God than in the King of Assyria. Ahaz doesn’t want to listen to God’s word through the prophet, instead seeking lots of other prophets to tell him what he wants to hear. That’s why God tells Ahaz through Isaiah to ask for a sign as “deep as the netherworld or high as the sky.” All of a sudden Ahaz, who has been presumptuously tempting the Lord through preparing to make this alliance, gets religion. “I will not ask!,” he replies. “I will not tempt the Lord!” He didn’t want to ask for a sign because once it would be granted it would be much more difficult for him to ignore what the Lord was telling him. After complaining that Ahaz was now wearying God just like he was wearying his people, Isaiah told him that God would give him this sign: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel.”
- That sign was not altogether remarkable. On the surface it seemed anything but an extraordinary miracle as high as the sky or as deep as the netherworld. It’s not particularly rare that a virgin conceives a child. Throughout the centuries, there have been many children have been conceived on honeymoons. The sign value for Ahaz would be more in the name given to that child: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” That child would be a sign that God is on the house of Judah’s side, that we don’t have to act as if God has left us alone. (We don’t know whether there was an immediate first fulfillment of this prophecy: some scholars have said it was Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, but Hezekiah was already not only conceived but nine years old by this point; others that it might refer to one of Isaiah’s children, but Isaiah’s wife had already conceived several children by this point. Regardless, Ahaz did what he was determined to do. He ignored God’s counsel through the prophet and formed the alliance with the King of Assyria. After liberating Jerusalem from the kingdoms of Israel and Syria, Assyria made Judah a vassal kingdom, sieged Jerusalem himself, and after Assyria was defeated by the Babylonians, the Babylonians took possession of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, murdered many residents and transported those who survived off as slaves.)
- The true and definitive fulfillment of the sign given to Ahaz, however, we see in today’s Gospel. 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,” which means, “God-is-with-us.” From the time the prophecy had been given, it was always linked to the coming of the Messiah, because a short time later in Isaiah, there’s the description of a “child born to us, a son given to us,” who would have dominion on his shoulder and be called by others “Wonder-counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, and Prince of Peace.” But they never fathomed that the fulfillment would be anything more than a sign of the God who bears all of those attributes; that God would literally fulfill that prophecy in two ways was so far beyond their imagination: that a virgin would conceive a child and remain a virgin; and that “God-with-us” would actually be God with us, that God would take on our nature and come to abide with us, that he would be “descended from David according to the flesh” (today’s second reading) and the very Son of God. The fulfillment of this prophecy would not just be a sign that God was on their side but actually the signified presence of God at their side. This would make the sign announced by Isaiah a sign for all times.
- We’re tempted sometimes, like Ahaz, to go through life as if God is not really there for us, as if he is not really present. But God has given this enduring sign that even when we’re experiencing tremendous human difficulty, we’re never abandoned. God is truly with us.
- There is a clear purpose to God’s presence, and that leads us to the second name of the Son of God that we need to ponder. God-with-us doesn’t come among us to leave us where he finds us. He has come to lift us up, literally to raise us from the dead, not just later after our funeral is celebrated by right now. He was born so that we might be reborn and live a new life with him. This is attested to in the name the angel tells St. Joseph to give to the son of Mary: “You are to name him Jesus.” This name, Jesus (the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua) means “God saves,” and the angel tells Joseph quite clearly what God through 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 expiation for our sins. And this is something that is constantly present tense. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” not “God was with us.” Jesus means “God saves,” not “God saved.” 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. Our sharing in the mystery and joy of Christmas, therefore, depends on whether we enter in the present into this saving, forgiving presence.
- So we’re called this Advent to lift up our gates to allow our Merciful Redeemer in. One way we’re called to do so is through the gift of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Jesus founded this gift of mercy on Easter Sunday evening to save us from all the sins we’ve committed after baptism, but we need to respond to that offer of saving love. So many Catholics have been given that divine 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 great a savior and coming to receive the medicine of his mercy. As we prepare for Christmas, it’s not only a time to prepare gifts for others as a tangible expression of our Christian love for them. It’s also a time when we focus most on the gift God wants to give us and prepare ourselves to give him a gift in return. What gift does the divine Birthday Boy want from us? He doesn’t need anything material — after all, he created the heavens and the earth. He wants from us whatever part of us we haven’t yet given to him. He wants us to receive the two great gifts that he established for us and our salvation, the two gifts corresponding to his two names: the gift of his presence in the Holy Eucharist (Emmanuel, God-with-us) and the gift of his saving forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Jesus, God-saves).
- To respond appropriately to what God wishes to do in us, we can learn so much from St. Joseph in today’s Gospel, who in many ways is an anti-Ahaz. At this parish dedicated to St. Joseph, the parishioners ought to be distinguished by having a greater than normal love and devotion to the man whom God the Father chose to be the foster father of his Son and raise him to be a man according to his humanity. In contrast to Ahaz’ cowardice, Joseph, at the word of the angel, was not afraid to take Mary his wife into his home. In contrast to Ahaz’ lack of faith, Joseph responded with the “obedience of faith” St. Paul describes in today’s second reading, docilely acting on what the Angel had communicated in a dream, something, even in pre-Freudian ages, could have been dismissed and deconstructed. Instead of ignoring God’s word, Joseph, a just man, “ad-justed” the trajectory of his life to God’s will. And finally he responded by accepting God’s sign, a virgin who had conceived a Son, taking her into his life. We are similarly called to make the choice this Advent about what to respond with courage or cowardice, with faith or doubt, by obeying God’s word or rejecting it, by taking Mary into our home, as St. John did under the Cross, or rejecting those whom God sends to us to show us how to grow in faith, like Ahaz rejected Isaiah.
- As we prepare for Christmas, we’re preparing for God’s gift of himself in ways that would have exceeded anything we would have ever asked. God didn’t give us a “sign” in response to our yearnings, but gave us something greater, a sacrament, a sign he instituted to bring about what the sign indicates: God’s presence with us in all our difficulties in the Eucharist and God’s saving us from our sins in Confession. Let us ask the Lord for the grace as we draw near to Christmas, like St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, to lift up our gates to receive these gifts with faith and to be strengthened by him to help others lift their gates high as well. This is the real, enduring meaning of Christmas!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 7:10-14
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
Responsorial Psalm PS 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?
or who may stand in his holy place?
One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
who desires not what is vain.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks for him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
Reading 2 ROM 1:1-7
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
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
through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
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;
to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia MT 1:23
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MT 1:18-24
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“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.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.