4th Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Psalm 24:1–2, 3–4, 5–6
There’s a popular image that floats around social media, often shared by pro-life advocates, that says, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” The message of course is that if Mary had reacted to her unplanned, crisis pregnancy the way many women are advised to do so today by those who mistakenly believe that abortion is a legitimate option that simply makes the problem go away, then the Christ child would have been killed in the womb, and sinful humanity would have remained in the darkness of sin, having aborted its hope for redemption.
But let’s go back to that saying, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” A friend of mine, and former parishioner in Hanover, Paul Oakes, had a very insightful response, that really ties our readings together beautifully (he gave me permission to quote him). He said:
“I have noticed several posts floating around lately that call Jesus’ birth an ‘unplanned pregnancy.’ However, I offer up to you that it was very much planned. Please hear me out!
If it were unplanned, God would have simply impregnated Mary without her consent and, then, 9 months later, she would have been like “Oh my gosh, I’m having God’s child!” Could you imagine the devastation that would’ve had on the Holy Family? How hurt and betrayed Joseph would have felt? How ashamed and used Mary would’ve felt? IF it had gone down that way?
But it didn’t. God planned it. The angel Gabriel told Mary about God’s plan. She said yes (her fiat). And when Joseph learned the truth, he accepted it too. At every point in history, God gives each of us free will. Mary and Joseph could have just as easily said “no” to God’s plan for their lives. He wasn’t going to force either of them to choose His way. But because they understood that Christ’s birth was bigger than their own plans, they accepted. Even if they didn’t have all the answers at first, they trusted God in faith and hope. They loved God above everything else and willingly submitted themselves to His plan. This Advent season, imagine what the Lord could do in our lives if we just said “Yes” to His will.”
That message “One unplanned pregnancy saved the world” is a pretty interesting insight, but that response just blew me away.
Most of the time when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus, we hear readings from St. Luke, who is sometimes called “St. Luke the Physician,” because certain details of his gospel reveal not only a very intelligent use of Greek, but also suggest evidence of medical training. One theologian pointed out the surprising connection that it is St. Luke the Physician who gives the most detail about the miraculous virginal conception of the Lord in the womb of the Blessed Mother. But in our new liturgical year that started with the first Sunday of Advent, we’re now in the year of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and from St. Matthew, we hear Joseph’s side of the story.
So we have some things to unpack that Matthew’s first century Jewish readers would have known right away, but are culturally unfamiliar to us. First, Mary was betrothed to Joseph. That does not mean they were engaged. They were married. Betrothal was the initial stage into the marriage, while the bride remained in her family’s home and the bridegroom established a home for her. Then they would have the wedding feast, and he would take her home and they would consummate their marriage. So for Joseph to find Mary returning from her visit to Elizabeth, Mary now at least three or four months pregnant, and Joseph knew it was not by him, he’s got a dilemma. Jewish law required that a woman who committed adultery would be publicly stoned. But Joseph, being a just and righteous man, struggled with the tension of being just and being merciful. So to preserve his righteousness, and her life, rather than denounce her publicly, he decided to divorce her privately, and she could go off and live somewhere else. Such was his intention.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David.’” Joseph was a descendant of David, but Joseph would have been called, Joseph, son of Jacob, his father’s name. So whatever the angel is about to tell Joseph, it has to do with his lineage all the way back to King David. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” To confirm what we said earlier, the angel calls Mary his wife. And he is to continue and fulfill their betrothal, and the wedding celebration, and take her to their new home.
“For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Now that’s gotta be a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps Joseph struggled with that. I mean, this is a dream, and as people have been pointing out for 2000 years, it’s much more likely that the child has a human father than a divine father.
And the angel continues, and perhaps this is enough to sway Joseph from his doubt. This is a pretty well-developed dream, and maybe it really has angelic inspiration to it. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” In the bible people’s names are often given or changed by God, or they get titles, that in Hebrew have a particular meaning, and then usually that meaning is explained as their role in the divine plan. For example, the patriarch Abram, which means “exalted father.” God says, “No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Abraham means, “father of a multitude.” The best example is probably the first chapter of the prophet Hosea, in which God tells Hosea what to name his children, as a series of messages to the people of Israel. And of course we know of Simon the fisherman, whom Jesus renamed Peter, based on the Greek word for “rock,” saying, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
In our gospel reading we have this twice. First, the Hebrew name “Jesus,” (actually “Yeshua”) means “God saves”. The angel tells Joseph to name the son, Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Then immediately St. Matthew cites this angelic instruction as the fulfillment of a key prophecy from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” And we’ll get to that in a moment. So Jesus, who will save us from our sins, is connected to the promise that God is with us.
Also, it’s significant that the angel tells Joseph to name the child. Mary had also been told by the angel to name the child Jesus (in some translations it says, “and you shall call the child Jesus,” with the added significance that the child had been divinely named Jesus, and they were to call him by the name he already had). In Israelite culture, the father would take the child upon his knee, and give the child his or her name, as an expression of claiming the child as his under the law. I’ve never been a fan of the modern habit of calling Joseph the “foster father of Jesus,” because foster father means one thing, and legal father means something much more permanent and important. Jesus is conceived by Mary while she is Joseph’s wife. Joseph claims Jesus as his son, with the legal and hereditary rights as the first-born son. As Fr. Cornelius Lapide (whose rich 16th century commentary I rediscovered last week) says:
Joseph was the true and lawful father of Christ, after the manner which I shall explain presently. Christ was the heir of David’s throne and scepter, not through Mary, but through Joseph, according to God’s promise to David. The scepter, therefore, of Judah devolved upon Jesus Christ, not only by the promise and gift of God, but by the right of hereditary succession. For if, by common right, sons succeed to their fathers’ inheritance, when they are only accounted their sons by common repute, how much more was Christ Joseph’s, His father’s, heir, since He was the Son of his wife, by the power and the gift of the Holy Ghost? Wherefore as Joseph had a parent’s right over Christ, indeed, all rights which parents have over sons, so on the other hand, Christ had, with reference to Joseph, all the rights which sons have in respect to their parents. He had therefore a right to the kingdom of Israel after Joseph’s death. Hence the question of the Magi, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”
(I hadn’t really considered that at the time of Jesus, Joseph was really the true heir to the throne of David; I just thought Joseph was one of many valid descendants of David, who was chosen by God to be Mary’s husband. But if Joseph really is the one with the true claim, then Jesus really is—by both his divine father and his human father—the King of the Jews!)
Joseph then awakes from his dream, fully confident in Mary’s innocence and the miraculous importance of her unborn child, and does as the angel instructed him, taking Mary his wife into his home.
The prophecy that St. Matthew quotes is, conveniently, our first reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. But inconveniently, our reading doesn’t really give us much context to understand it. After King David’s son Solomon, Israel broke into the small southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the king was of the Davidic dynasty, and then the larger, more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel. Then they had their neighbor, Syria, which was an on-again/off-again relationship, and the great and powerful empire of Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh, which was a brutal tyranny that extorted huge tributes from their conquered nations, which included Syria and Israel (hence Jonah’s hostility toward his mission to preach to and save the people of Nineveh, and his anger when they actually listened and God forgave them). So Syria and Israel had decided not to pay the tributes to Assyria anymore, and wanted Judah’s help to battle Assyria. The king of Judah, King Ahaz, saw this as a stupid idea, and said no. So Syria and Israel turned around to attack Judah. Now Ahaz is being told by his court advisers to ask Assyria for help (which was also a stupid idea), which is like making a deal with the devil. And then the prophet Isaiah confronts Ahaz, who is not particularly courageous, virtuous, or faithful, and Isaiah tells Ahaz that God is with them, will defend and uphold them, as long as they remain independent and not solicit the help of Assyria.
God says to Ahaz through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” So God gives Ahaz a blank check. Ask for anything to prove to you that I will protect you, and I will give you that proof. But Ahaz had already made up his mind to go to Assyria. So faking to take the pious route, Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Now, Isaiah knows what kind of person Ahaz is. It’s like a politician with a track record of consistently promoting legislation antithetical to church teaching suddenly announcing what a faithful Catholic he (or she) is. Neither Isaiah nor the LORD are impressed by Ahaz’s hypocrisy. Isaiah responds, “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?” Oh, you descendant of the great King David, on his throne, how far you have fallen. It’s not enough for you to patronize me. But to mock faith in God as well. The sign to be given is no longer to persuade Ahaz, but will now be to confirm the truth of what the prophet has spoken. It’s no longer to fortify Ahaz’ faith, but now to shame Ahaz’s failure to be faithful. And indeed, Judah is almost completely wiped out, with Jerusalem itself being besieged.
Last thing: The prophecy itself. The word being translated as “virgin” is the Hebrew word alma. Critics of Christianity love to point out that alma doesn’t exactly mean virgin, as in a woman who has not had relations with a man (our modern use of the word). But alma is better translated into English as “maiden,” which is a young woman, unmarried, and presumably chaste, and so by extension, a virgin. It could apparently also refer to a young woman who was married but who had not yet had her first born. That wasn’t as common, but it’s this usage that is key to this issue. Christianity originally used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the translation of alma into the Greek was parthenos, which literally means virgin (as in the Parthenon, the Greek temple of the virgin goddess Athena). The prophecy of Isaiah, in context, is that Ahaz should not panic but rather trust in God, because by the time a young woman gives birth and “before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.” Which in the general sense, means in less than a few years. But specifically, in Israel’s conscience, Isaiah was prophesying the birth of King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz and his young wife Abia (like Mary, the young wife of Joseph), and Hezekiah was a great and holy king. And so it is Hezekiah that Isaiah is calling the sign of God’s fidelity to Israel, Hezekiah is the living sign of Emmanuel, God is with us (historically, this is anachronistic. Ahaz ruled for 16 years, and Hezekiah was 23 when he succeeded his father. So Hezekiah had been born before Ahaz had ascended to the throne. But centuries later, that detail was overlooked, and Hezekiah was held to be the one spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy).
Isaiah most likely didn’t know that his prophetic words meant more than that, something infinitely more important, 800 years after him. Yet when the Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to use those words, the Spirit already knew that he would also inspire Matthew to grab hold of those words, and that while they were fulfilled directly by the birth of the royal son of David, Hezekiah, they were ultimately intended to be perfectly fulfilled by the royal and divine son of David, Jesus.
Isaiah was faithful in speaking the words the Holy Spirit inspired in him. Mary and Joseph were faithful in accepting their role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan he had known since the foundation of the world. Ahaz had not been faithful, he had already made up his mind despite God’s plan, and it did not go well for him or for those around him. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re asked the same question again: Will we be faithful in accepting God’s plan, or have we made our plans without God? Are we willing to throw our plans away to accept God’s will for our life, that might be completely different than our plan? That’s the effect Jesus has, to the extent that we allow him in our hearts, and give him our permission to rule in our hearts. We know God is with us. The question is, are we with God?