Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Cycle A
Saturday, December 22, 2007 – Dignity/Northern Virginia

I’m not much of a sports or baseball fan, but this evening’s celebration is the first part of what could be called a liturgical double-header. Not only will I have the pleasure of being with you again two nights from now for the Christmas Eve celebration of the Nativity, but by an unusual occurrence, the Gospel reading we have for tonight will be – in part – the Gospel passage we’ll hear once again on Monday evening. At our Vigil liturgy for Christmas Eve, we will hear an extended version of this passage from Matthew, a version which re-tells the genealogy of Jesus’ family tree, demonstrating that – at least according to the Law – Jesus is a descendant of David and therefore can be seen as fulfilling the prophecy about which Isaiah writes – that a “almah/virgin” will give birth to a child and that child will be called Immanuel – God with us.

This passage from the very first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel tells us part of the story of Jesus’ birth, but from a different perspective than the passages from Luke that we are so familiar with. Other than the angelic visitor, the only other character in this passage is Joseph, the young man who is described as Mary’s husband. Marriage customs were a bit different in the Jewish culture and society of that day – marriage would usually be arranged by the families involved and so Joseph is spoken of as engaged, or betrothed to the young girl, Mary. They were, in fact, “married” in every sense except for the fact that they did not yet live together.

We are told that it was Joseph’s intention quietly divorce Mary, so clearly he knows that she is pregnant, that she is expecting a child – and he also knows that the child is not his. We’re also told that he was an “upright man” – which would mean that he follows the Law. And the Law in this situation was pretty harsh. It would have said that he had the right not only to “divorce her,” to not complete the marriage contract by taking her into his home – but the law from Deuteronomy also said that she – Mary — should be brought to the entrance to her father’s house and stoned to death for bringing this disgrace not just upon her family, but on all of Israel.

And so, being the good guy that he is, Joseph doesn’t want this to happen to Mary, so it’s his intention simply to “divorce her quietly.” I don’t know what the population of Nazareth was at that time, but I have to wonder how easy it would be to do such a thing “quietly.” Family and neighbors all had to know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, so I’m sure this would be the perfect stuff for gossip in the community. And, not only that, it would also be seen as quite scandalous in the wider community. Nonetheless, it is Joseph’s intention to divorce her and not to expose her publicly. This plan changes, however, when he has a dream – a dream in which an angelic visitor tells him, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”

You know, scholars tell us that the admonition – “Fear not!” or “Do not be afraid!” – this occurs countless times both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Even those of us who are not scripture scholars just need to take a few moments to think about so many of the passages that are familiar to us and we realize that this is correct:

  • In Genesis, when Abraham is still Abram, God tells him to “fear not” before establishing a Covenant;
  • In a vision, an angelic visitor told Daniel not once, but twice, “Do not fear” – the second time saying “Do not fear, greatly beloved. You are safe! Be strong and courageous.”
  • The declaration to the husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptizer, says: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”
  • And of course, we are all familiar with the greeting of Gabriel, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
  • At the birth of Jesus, an angel says to the shepherds near Bethlehem, “Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you news of great joy!”
  • In Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples who had heard a voice from heaven, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
  • In Mark, we hear Jesus himself telling his disciples who have gone out fishing – they think he is a ghost on the water, but he tells them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

I suppose it’s reasonable to expect that such seemingly other-worldly encounters could engender a sense of fear and trepidation, and so it’s not unexpected that God or God’s emissary might offer a bit of consolation with these calming words. But even before the “divine encounter,” I wonder if these individuals – Abraham, Zechariah, Daniel, Mary, Jesus’ disciples, or the young Joseph from today’s reading – I wonder if there were other things that caused them to be afraid, to be anxious, to be worried about their lives or the situations in which they found themselves?
Let’s take the case of Joseph. We know very little about this young man, except that he was a descendant of David and that he was committed in marriage to the young girl, Mary. As most young people, he probably was looking forward with much anticipation to this new life that he was about to begin. He’s getting married – and I’m sure he probably had all the hopes and expectations that any young person might have at such a time in life. Although we have to be careful not to presume too much, it’s clear that whatever hopes and expectations he had to build a life with his young wife Mary – these hopes and aspirations are now gone. Who knows what this situation might mean for him in the community? I can’t imagine that this would be a very enviable position to be in.

When we think about our lives, are there things that we are afraid of? I’m sure if we take just a moment to think about where we are in life – our relationships, our future, the world in which we life — there would be things that cause us to be fearful, anxious and afraid. For me, I know this is certainly true. As more my beard turns to gray and white, I am reminded that I am growing old and I sometimes am a bit fearful of what that experience of aging will be like for me. Not only am a sometimes afraid of growing old, but I’m also afraid of the possibility of growing old alone, wondering whether or not I’ll have someone to share that time of life with.
I’m blessed to have both of my parents still alive and doing well, but I’m afraid of the day that I know will come when that’s no longer true.
I’m afraid that someday the good health I’ve been blessed with might fail, and that I will become ill, and perhaps even no longer able to care for myself and dependent on others. I’m afraid that maybe I haven’t done all I should to prepare for the future, and that I won’t be able to meet all of my needs.

Looking beyond myself …

  • I sometimes fear that our American culture and society is becoming less tolerant of people like you and me … and less tolerant and accepting of anyone who is “different” or “one of them” or “not like us” in one way or another.
  • At the risk of saying something political, I fear that the next resident of the White House might speak a good game of “being Christian,” but be someone whose understanding of Christianity – as a religion rooted in love, in charity — is so different from those of us gathered here.
  • I fear, too, that bishops and other leaders in our own Catholic community will continue to close the doors to people like us – or welcome us only when we agree to remain quietly in the shadows – ostensibly telling us that really is no room for us at the tables they set.

Psychologists tell us that there are typically two normal, primal responses to fear. They speak of our natural “fight or flight” response. When we find ourselves in a situation that we perceive as threatening and potentially harmful – we either become combative and begin to lash out [like the animal who’s been backed into a corner], or we simply run away to a place where we feel protected and the threat can no longer reach us. Isn’t this what Joseph wanted to do? He wanted the situation in which he found himself to go away – his “flight response” was in high gear.

For him, it took the intervention of an angel in a dream, to help him understand that he didn’t really see the full picture. This dream – which I believe had to have been born of his fundamental faith in God, the “righteous,” good guy that he was – this dream helps him to remember that God is at work even in this situation in which his plans are being turned upside down and things aren’t working out as he had hoped.

And so, he realizes that in fact, there is a third response to Fear. Instead of “fight or flight,” he finds strength in his faith – a faith that tells him God’s hand is at work. In these next brief days before Christmas, let’s take just a few moments to think about those things which cause us to be afraid – remembering that the angel’s words to Joseph are spoken to us as well: “Do not be afraid.” Like this holy place in which are gathered, let us remember Immanuel — God is with us.

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