|December 17-18, 2016, Fourth Sunday in Advent, Cycle A|
Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.
Every year we get these Christmas cards with these serene pictures of the birth of Jesus that just beam "Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm" at us. But as we read in the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke we get a very different picture. If any of us has bought into that fictional account, today's readings are just the thing to set us straight.
Christmas is not all calm and all bright. It is a messy feast; almost everything about it is messy. And in some ways that is the point of the incarnation. It is certainly the scandal of the incarnation. The truth is that life is a mess; at least mine is, and from what I see around me and in the news, it is not just mine. And that is the messy world that Jesus was born into, the world he lived in, suffered and died in, and the world that his resurrection promises to bring salvation to.
Mary is poor young girl in a backwater area of a small occupied nation on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. She is pregnant and unmarried. Joseph is put in the position of having to decide whether his betrothed should be publicly shamed or even worse, stoned to death. According to Matthew's story as we shall hear in the coming weeks,we will see that Jesus is born away from home in a stable surrounded by animals and all that entails because they live in an occupied nation and the emporer, the earthly king, has decided to show his power by calling for a census; and then Herod, the king of the Jews, will try to kill Jesus, forcing Mary and Joseph and Jesus to become like so many today in that area of the world: refugees fleeing violence.
So Matthew tells us that God coming into the world is scandalous. Joseph is described as righteous which means he follows the Mosaic law which would require that Mary be stoned or quietly divorced because she is with child but as yet unmarried. But the deeper meaning of righteous is that Joseph is in right relationship with God and so he is compassionate towards Mary and he is trusting of the message the angel brings him from God. But even that message is messy. The angel quotes from Isaiah that this birth is a fulfillment of the God's promise to his people Israel. But this does not mean that the Lord spoke through Isaiah to King Ahaz and predicted that 600 years later Mary would give birth to Jesus. That first reading is part of an exchange between the prophet Isaiah and King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz was the descendant of King David and thus he was a fulfillment of God's promise that the crown would never depart from David's family. Jerusalem is being attacked by Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel or Ephraim. Isaiah has been sent to warn Ahaz not to enter into an alliance with Assyria for protection but he has already made up his mind. So the Lord prophesies that his young wife will give birth to a son who will also be king in David's line, continuing to fulfill God's promise. And that by the time that child is weaned, Assyria, Syria and Ephraim will all be gone as powers. This continuation of the Davidic line is a sign that God is with his people which is why he will be called Emmanuel. Of course Jesus is the final fulfillment of that promise which is why the angel uses that quote. Pretty messy, no?
God's plan for salvation, as we learn from Scripture, is very different from that proclaimed by the nicely dressed men and women who come to our door giving out Watchtower magazines. Their understanding is that when the end of the world happens, 144,000 of the righteous will be snatched out of this mess of a world and taken away to paradise, leaving the rest of us down here in the mess. Our Catholic faith says, no, God's plan is not to take anyone out of the mess but instead to come down into the mess with us. To be Emmanuel. God with us in our mess. And by doing so, this God with us, who is named Yeshua which means the one who delivers or saves, gives us the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins. We have received the grace of apostleship which is how salvation happens. In other words, we are to proclaim this Gospel of the God who is with us to everyone. Are we able to trust the way Joseph did? The angel did not make the mess disappear. He just commanded Joseph to trust in God's presence in the mess.
We are to trust in this promise that the only way out of this mess is for us to obey the command that God gave us in baptism. To be the body of Christ here and now; to be the embodiment of God's love which is the only way to clean up the mess.
In the meantime, we have God's promise that God is always with us, in the flesh in the Body of Christ, the Church; in the flesh in Eucharist; in the flesh in one another.
O Come O Come Emmanuel.