As we arrive on the cusp of the celebration of Christmas, the readings from the Fourth Sunday of Advent set the stage for the birth of Jesus. The Advent season begins by reminding us that we look to the future with hope as we await the return of the Lord in glory; it concludes by pointing us back in time to the coming of Jesus in the flesh.
This “look back” is to the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah, set forth in the first reading, that “the virgin shall conceive, and bear and son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” The evangelist Matthew makes clear that this prophecy has been fulfilled through Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. The effect of reading these texts in tandem is to strengthen our faith and trust in God and in his promises to us. The God who was faithful in fulfilling his promises in sending the Messiah can be trusted to fulfill all the divine promises, including the ones to which we refer when praying the Apostle’s Creed: “we believe in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
God’s action of fulfilling promises takes place through human freedom. Mary’s Fiat (“Let it be done to me according to your word”) opened the way for the Spirit’s empowerment to conceive Jesus in her womb. That Fiat is part of the Angelus prayer, the conclusion of which is the Opening Prayer in today’s Eucharistic Liturgy (“Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts ….”). It is Mary’s trusting Yes to God that evoked the words of praise from her kinswoman Elizabeth: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).
Joseph, the man to whom Mary was betrothed, also put his trust in God. He is described as “a righteous man,” biblical language that denotes one who is committed to following God’s ways. It is interesting to note that no words of Joseph’s are recorded in Scripture. His eloquence is articulated through his silence. Joseph lets his actions do his speaking. He takes Mary into his home as his wife and commits himself to caring for her and the child she bears.
Notice how both Mary and Joseph embody what St. Paul in the second reading, from the Letter to the Romans, calls “the obedience of faith.” The life of faith, the way we relate to God, is marked by obedience. It’s interesting to note that, in both Latin and Greek (the language of the New Testament), there is a relationship between the words “listen” and “obey” (in Latin, audire and oboedire, respectively). The sense is that obedience is trusting submission to what is heard. Vis-à-vis our relationship with God, this involves carefully heeding God’s word.
Mary heeded the angel’s invitation to be the mother of the Messiah. By welcoming God’s word into her heart, she conceived and eventually gave birth to Jesus, the Word-made-flesh. While her role is obviously unique (there is only one Mother of Jesus!), the dynamism of bearing Jesus and bringing him to others is something to which each one of us is called. That is, by allowing God’s word and ways to penetrate more deeply into our very being, we are empowered to show forth Christ to others. That is the fundamental call of the Christmas season we are about to celebrate.
There is something else Joseph does that can merit our admiration: he follows his dreams. That the angel of God communicates through dreams is a biblical motif (as a matter of fact, Joseph’s forebear in name was quite famous for his ability to interpret dreams—see the concluding chapters in the Book of Genesis for the story of Joseph the Dreamer). Lest we be too romantic in reflecting on this, following his dreams was not an easy proposition for Joseph. It was in dreams that he was cautioned to flee from Herod’s murderous intentions toward the infant Jesus and to take his family to Egypt as refugees.
The Christmas season brings forth childlike delights and wonder. It can be a time to ponder what our deep-down desires are. Self-doubt, previous failures, the naysaying of others can exert a destructive cumulative effect over us. Might there be new ways through which God is inspiring me to allow the love of Jesus to shine forth through me? Are there “dreams” that I am invited to follow, that would call forth heroism and courage beyond what I tend to think are possible left to my own devices?
The One prophesied by Isaiah is Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” With God at our side through Jesus, the possibilities are endless. Mary and Joseph are shining examples of what can happen when we place our trust in God, whose fidelity and love for us have no bounds. As we begin to embark upon a new year, we can reflect on how God is calling each one of us to deepen our “obedience of faith.”