Fourth Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Matthew 1, 18-24

The scarcity of detail in today’s gospel-reading leaves me puzzled and dissatisfied. As a consequence, I find myself wanting to explore the human aspects of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth. If Jesus had the fullness of the human condition, but without sin, are we to conclude that Joseph, too, was just as human as we are? If we agree to that, we have to acknowledge that Joseph felt the same emotions we feel, struggled to contain them and was not always successful

Also, in the context of this story, it’s important not to overlook the Biblical convention that the words “dream” and “angel” were code for a profound experience of the divine. Modern terminology would say that both Mary and Joseph each had a peak experience or a deeply religious one. However they did not have their separate experiences at the same time.

Those who wrote the stories of the birth of Jesus, at least seventy years after his death, were clearly setting out to make the point that there were signs of greatness about Jesus well and truly before he embarked on his public ministry. So they described extraordinary events surrounding his birth. Modern writers have done similar things. For example, Lord Macaulay, the famous 19th century British lawyer, historian and politician was regarded as a child prodigy. There is a story about his words to an elderly woman who was fussing over him after spilling hot tea on him when he was a small child, asleep in his crib. He interrupted her fussing with: “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.” Can you believe that?

But let’s look, for a moment, at the implications of how Matthew tells the story. There is the troubling and confusing human situation that confronted Mary and Joseph. First up, Joseph had to deal with the shocking news that his fiancée was pregnant. Moreover, he knew he was not the father. He had grown up in a village, and would have known how villagers gossip and are interested in everybody else’s business. So, he knew the gossips would be at work. Presumably, he was man enough to ask Mary questions and make comments: “So you had a religious experience did you, and came away pregnant? Tell me another one!” Turning things over in his own mind, surely he would have wondered who the father was. He may well have asked himself if Mary had been raped by a Roman soldier. After all, he and Mary were living in an occupied land, and invading forces often had little respect for women.

Then we are told that Joseph, too, had a dream – another religious experience with an angel telling him that Mary’s conception was miraculous. However, I suspect that this carpenter was not big on theology, so had not even heard of the Holy Spirit, and knew nothing of the holy Spirit’s seven gifts. While the angel in his dream may have given him some reassurance, he was left with a whole lot of consequences he had to negotiate, one after another. While he was engaged to Mary, or possibly already married to her, they were not living together (Even married couples could not live together until it was clear that the man had the resources to provide for his wife and any children they might have). Moreover, neither Mary nor Joseph lived in isolated cocoons. Surely there were discussions between their families as to how to deal with the immediacy of Mary’s pregnancy and how to live with the inevitable gossip. We are told that Joseph was a “wise man” and a man of compassion. So, he had made up his mind not to throw Mary to the wolves, but to divorce her quietly. Did this decision come after talking with his in-laws, his own family and Mary herself? But look at the other decisions that had already been made for him. Getting reassured by an angel was one thing, but there’s no hint that the angel told him everything that was just around the corner. He was given no say in naming the child he was expected to foster. He was simply told that the baby would be a boy and was to be called Jesus. And then came more unsettling events. An unexpected Roman census meant an arduous trip when Mary was in the last stages of her pregnancy, and, worse still, they could find no respectable place for her baby to be delivered. Then, the elderly couple in the Temple predicted that this baby boy would one day bring both Mary and Joseph great grief. And this was followed by an enforced exile, when they had to flee as refugees into Egypt. No wonder Joseph seems to have gone to an early grave! Crises take a toll on people, and this family had more than their share of crises. So, if you take nothing else from today’s gospel, spare a thought for Joseph and Mary, the man and woman who do not hold centre stage.

Why all this hypothesising on my part and why does Matthew put the focus on events that are scandalous to observers and embarrassing and humiliating for Mary and Joseph? Firstly, it is to demonstrate that when Mary and Joseph accepted the intervention of God in their lives, there were very difficult, even traumatic, consequences. God’s interventions in our lives are never neutral. There is a cost to embracing God’s way of leading us. Secondly, Matthew makes the point that God’s birth into our world in the person of Jesus depended on the collaboration of ordinary human beings like Joseph and Mary. Joseph had to make a giant step in unselfishness by agreeing to be a foster father to a child in whose conception he had no part. Moreover, as a very distant descendant of King David, Joseph gave legitimacy to Jesus and, as a consequence, credibility to the prophecy of Isaiah, which Matthew quotes:

Look! The virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’.

Both Mary and Joseph set aside fear, self-interest and reputation to claim a child whom their world would have regarded as unwanted, in order to usher into the world ‘God-with-us’. And isn’t that our role as Christians – to bring Jesus to birth in our small part of the world by reaching out in the midst of criticism and insult to those who are forgotten, deliberately overlooked and discarded for no other reason than our belief is that God is with us and in them, too. That’s why W.H. Auden could write, for all of us to consider: “It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you” (Christmas Oratorio).

As we move closer to Christmas, we are invited to reflect on today’s gospel invitation to each of us to embrace the role of Joseph by welcoming Jesus into our lives in order to bring him to everyone we encounter. Without our “yes”, God’s hands are tied.