Gospel For Today – 4th Sunday of Advent
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT (A)
"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."
The above quote from Isaiah is taken from today's first reading. During today's celebration of the fourth and final Sunday in Advent we look forward with greater anticipation than ever for the coming of Emmanuel – God with us. This exchange described in Isaiah 7:10-14 is interesting. God wants to give His people a sign of the coming savior – a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son – but Ahaz and Isaiah seem almost afraid to ask. God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from the Lord, but Ahaz responds, "I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!" And Isaiah speaks of people wearying God – it is easy to imagine the Israelites perpetually pestering the Almighty with cries of "show us a sign, show us a sign!"
One is brought to mind of Jesus' words to Satan when He was being tempted in the desert. Satan was pestering Christ by saying things such as "If you are really the Son of God, turn this stone into bread," and "If you are really the Son of God, leap off this cliff and your angels will save you." Jesus responded by reminding the devil, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God."
When we ask for signs from God, we are usually more like Satan than we are like Ahaz or Isaiah. We ask for signs not from faith, but from doubt. God, if you are really there, please show me a sign. Or we ask for signs as a means of shirking our own responsibilities. God, if you want me to change majors, give me a sign. God, if you want me to quit my job, just show me a sign.
Often we may ask for a sign from God when we are facing a major decision, especially one that involves a greater purpose in our life, and our relationship with Him. God, if you want me to be a priest, show me a sign. God, if you desire me to enter consecrated life, show me a sign. God, if you want me to marry, just send me a sign. Praying, talking to God, listening to His word, and trying to discern His will in your life is certainly a good thing to do, especially as we discern major life decisions such as these. But we should not expect a burning bush, or a new star to appear in the sky. If this is the sort of sign we expect, then we expect too much. We weary our God.
God will send us the signs that we need. Even though Ahaz did not want to tempt the Lord by asking Him for a sign, God nevertheless revealed that He would come among us through a virgin birth. Likewise, He sent a sign to Joseph. He sent an angel to him in a dream (the word angel means "messenger"), telling him, "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."
But Joseph never asked for a sign. Certainly, he was faced with a difficult decision. And certainly he relied on prayer to help him decide what to do. Our gospel reading today (Mt 1:18-24) describes Joseph as "a righteous man." And this is the key. Joseph was not fretting over what was the right thing for him to do. Rather he was more concerned simply with doing the right thing.
He had taken Mary to be his wife. The Gospels are shy on the details, but according to certain extra-biblical sources, such as the Protoevangelium of James (c.150 AD), Mary was a young woman who had been consecrated to God and sworn to a life of celibacy, much like our modern nuns. Joseph was an older man, a widower with grown children, who took Mary into his home as her guardian. The practice in those days was for consecrated virgins to marry men – usually older men who already had a family – as a means to provide them with safety and security. It was understood to be a non-sexual marriage, and indeed one of the responsibilities of the husband was to guard his bride's chastity.
According to the Protoevangelium Joseph had left home to attend to his buildings and when he returned after a long while, he found Mary six months pregnant (and quite visibly so!) It reads, "And she was in her sixth month; and, behold, Joseph came back from his building, and, entering into his house, he discovered that she was big with child. And he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly, saying: With what face shall I look upon the Lord my God? And what prayer shall I make about this maiden? Because I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her!"
Thus the difficult decision that Joseph is faced with in today's gospel. He decides to divorce her quietly, so as not to expose her to shame. He wants to do the right thing in this difficult situation, so as not to bring Mary shame, nor bring disrespect to God or His temple. He doesn't ask God for a sign. He simply tries to conduct his life in a way pleasing to God.
In this case God gives Joseph a sign to direct him – an angel telling him not to be afraid to take Mary into his home. God becoming incarnate in this world and being born among us is rather a big deal, and Joseph is just the sort of man God desires to raise His Son – a righteous man who strives to live a life of holiness and integrity. Rather than "wearying God" or "testing God" by demanding signs of Him for every decision in our lives, we should strive to be like Joseph. We should seek to live lives of holiness and draw ever closer to God. Rather than be filled with anxiety over whether you should become a priest, or a sister or brother, or whether you should work for this company, or marry this person, or enter this major, etc., we should focus on being holy people. The rest will come. Strive to be the holiest version of yourself that you can be, and it will be revealed in time whether that means taking holy orders, entering a religious community, marrying, and so forth. Just know that the sign you receive from God is not likely to be an angel appearing in a dream – the birth of God-with-us is rather a special occasion! More likely it will be an inner sign such as profound joy and the peace of Christ in your heart.
Finally, let us heed the words of the angel to Joseph and not be afraid to take Mary and her child into our homes as we prepare for Christmas, and the rest of the year, as well. I love the thought of Mary being visibly pregnant with Jesus. Are you visibly pregnant with Jesus? Not in the literal sense, of course, but can others readily see the presence of Christ in your heart? Pregnant women are often said to have a "glow." Can you imagine the glow you would have if people readily saw the presence of Jesus within you? Make this your prayer today as we anticipate the celebration of our Savior's birth. God is with us. Accept Him into your life, and don't hesitate to let it show.
If you are interested in learning more about the extra-biblical Protoevangelium of James, which gives more back-story to the lives of Mary and Joseph and has contributed much to our Sacred Tradition, the whole text is available free online. Just click the below link: