DECEMBER 19, 2004, 4TH SUNDAY OF ADVENT- ISAIAH 7:10-14; MT 1:18-24
THE VIRGIN SHALL CONCEIVE AND WILL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL NAME HIM EMMANUEL. Today, the last Sunday of Advent, this text from the prophet Isaiah provides us with reflections that call forth our decision of faith in the Virgin birth as a proximate preparation for celebrating the birth of our Savior that we are to commemorate this Saturday. For this passage from the most gifted of Israel=s prophets confronts all of us with a choice that proves to be a stumbling block for many, as it was for the man to whom it was addressed originally, face to face, by the prophet. 'The virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and you shall call his name Emmanuel'.
If you read various translations of this text you will find that it has proved a challenge to modern scholars as well. The difficulty arises from the fact that the Hebrew of the Isaian text is 'almah' which means a young woman, a maiden. The presumption is that she is a virgin and so can be rendered by that term or simply by 'maiden'. Hebrew does have a word which means precisely a virgin, 'batulah. However, the translator of the Greek Septuagint, writing over 200 years before Christ=s conception, translated alma by the Greek word 'parthenos' which is specific for 'virgin'. The Jews of the diaspora read Isaiah in this version. Matthew quotes Isaiah in today's Gospel not from the Hebrew but from the Greek, and does so to make it clear that Jesus is born of the Virgin Mary. This is how he was understood from early times.
Where Matthew is not altogether clear is in indicating why Joseph considered divorcing Mary after he learned that she was pregnant. Opinions of the Catholic Fathers were divided. Some thought he drew the natural conclusion that Mary had been with another man and so felt it his duty to separate from her. That is how most modern readers read the text. There are difficulties with this view, it seems to me, once one reflects on the circumstances. For such a conclusion presumes that either Mary had not explained to Joseph how she had conceived by the Holy Spirit, which seems most unlikely, for she owed an explanation to her husband- to- be, or that Joseph did not believe her. Others such as St. Bernard, considered it unthinkable that Joseph would have believed Mary unfaithful. Bernard maintains that the reason Joseph considered putting her away privately was due to reverence for her and the child she carried in her womb. He felt unworthy of such a close association with the person who was chosen for so holy a role in the mysterious workings of God. His perplexity came from not knowing how to respond to such a unique circumstance.
In any case, it is evident that Joseph was hesitating on how best to respond to this distressing circumstance when he had a striking dream that resolved the issue for him. His reaction to the contents of this dream tell us a good deal about him and even more, perhaps, about Mary=s person and her character. For Joseph was able to put faith in his dream because, the more he pondered over the situation the less he could believe Mary was capable of infidelity. He did not as yet know her well for they had not lived together, but even a limited acquaintance with her allowed this man of pure heart to perceive that she was both chaste and trustworthy; she would not deceive him. He was more sure of her than of his own capacity to fulfill the role of head of such a family. Her willing acceptance of him as her husband, her fidelity to him and to God called forth the faith he needed to build his future and that of Mary and the child on the assurance supplied by the Spirit in his dream.
In this act of faith Joseph mirrors for us the response that God expects from each of us as we too are confronted with the mystery of the virginal conception and birth of Christ and all it entails for our future and that of those whose well-being the Lord entrusts to us. We are challenged by the birth of Christ into our world to decide whether we judge and act according to the standards that society sets, or whether we choose to build our life on faith in God's plan of salvation and the role in it that he assigns to us. The word of God that we hear in this Gospel and in the prophet is an invitation given us to open our mind and heart to the same Spirit who gave faith and courage to Joseph and sustained him in the trials that followed his acceptance of his place in the mystery of salvation. To believe that Christ is born as Savior for us is to have confidence that we are chosen by him because he wills that we be associated with him in his mission. More, it means to trust that he desires to share his life with us, now and for all eternity. It is to fulfill that desire that he is known as Emmanuel, God with us. To stake our life on this firm belief is to imitate Joseph; it is the only adequate way to prepare for the birth of Christ at Christmas. May the offering of this Holy Eucharist obtain the grace we need to open our hearts to the same Spirit who enlightened and strengthened St. Joseph in his need.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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