Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
by Fr. George Berendt, PIME
Readings for December 22, 2014: Isaiah 7: 10-14, Romans 1: 1-7, Matthew 1: 18-24
Years ago when I applied for my first passport I needed a copy of my birth certificate to send to the Department of State proving to them I was an American citizen. I needed to show when and where I was born.
I went to Detroit’s Department of Records and paid $5 and received a copy of my birth certificate. I mailed it to the Department of State along with my passport fee and application. That little piece of paper was proof of where and when I was born and the gold standard proof that I was an American citizen. Hence I could get an American passport.
Only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, recorded the birth of Jesus. The other two, Mark and John don’t. In Matthew and Luke we call the first chapters of their Gospels the “Infancy Narratives.”
My “infancy narrative” was recorded in the hospital soon after my birth and eventually it was registered with the local government. Jesus’ infancy narrative was written long after his birth, life, death, and resurrection. It would be safe to say that Matthew and Luke are writing about Jesus’ birth something like 30 years after Jesus lived, died and rose. In other words, they are not giving us a factual account of Jesus’ birth recorded in some office in “‘Bethlehem’s Department of Records” and kept on file for Matthew and Luke to examine before they wrote their Gospels.
Matthew, today’s Gospel, is not attempting to give us an historical account of Jesus’ birth. Rather, he is giving us a theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ birth in our world. In other words, what does the birth of this child mean for me, for you, for us, and for the entire world?
Like an overture of some great symphony, Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus puts before our eyes themes that run all through his Gospels and will be part of the life of Jesus. These themes already began before Jesus was born. In the great symphony of Jesus’ life, these themes follow him wherever he goes and are already present in embryonic form even before he was born.
What’s going on in Matthew’s infancy narrative? If you’re attentive to what you read or heard you can’t miss the tension that exists in the first chapter of Matthew. Here’s the cultural and Jewish religious background to the world of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; a world that existed 2000 years ago.
Mary is betrothed to Joseph. This means that they are a pair and both families agree that they will wed. The die is cast. They are considered husband and wife but still live apart. In the Galilean culture of that time it means that up to this point the betrothed pair did not have sexual relations because the marriage celebration hadn’t taken place yet. Only after the wedding feast is celebrated would they be considered legitimately husband and wife and could finally live together and produce children. The marriage celebration seals the deal.
The problem is Mary is pregnant before the marriage celebration occurred and this is scandalous. This means only two things could have happened:
- Mary was raped or,
- Mary had sex with someone else.
Matthew doesn’t dwell on the lurid details but he gives us enough information to let us know trouble is brewing in Joseph and Mary’s relationship. Now the Jewish law was clear when thing like this happened. Every Jew worth his kosher salt knows what had to be done. It was written in black and white in Deuteronomy 22:20 in regard to sexual scandal. The law goes like this: ‘…they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death.’
Normally, the father of the girl had to throw the first stone then the other men followed. This is the dilemma Joseph now faces. He can demand a public inquiry and degrade Mary more and have her stoned to death as the law dictates or come up with another solution to avoid scandal. Keep this word ‘scandal’ in your head somewhere.
Now Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man. What will such a man do? He will divorce her quietly and send her on her way. As a righteous man he obeys the law and protects Mary’s personhood. However, God does not allow Joseph to carry out his plans. An angel appears to him in a dream and tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife.
God gives Joseph a divine plane. God erases Joseph’s righteous plan as all too human and tells him to carry out the Divine plan, a different plan. God is saying: “Don’t fret Joseph about the scandal! I’m piloting the ship and so you, Joseph, must do as I say.” Remember what the prophet Isaiah said about Yahweh: “My ways are not your ways, your thoughts not my thoughts.”
Here we encounter the great theme in the symphony of Jesus’ life: scandal, divine scandal. God is going to “rock our world.”
Jesus will be a scandal to our world. Jesus will be a scandal to the religious world of Israel and to our world today. Jesus is going to turn our world upside down.
Matthew set the theme for all of Jesus’ life in the first chapter of his Gospel. Even before Jesus is born, even while Jesus is still in Mary’s womb, even before Jesus sees the light of day in the stable, Jesus is causing scandal in embryonic form and this will follow him every day of his life.
All of his life Jesus will shake our world by what he does and says. Jesus will scandalize. Jesus will challenge our understanding of the conventional religious wisdom of his day and our day. He will scandalize his contemporaries and us by his understanding of the law. He will allow women to touch and accompany him in his mission, he will eat with sinners and tax collectors, he will cure the outcast lepers, he will forgive sins of adultery, and he will show a tender heart of mercy and compassion that goes way beyond the demands of the law. Jesus will incarnate God and God will scandalize.
Joseph’s quandary foreshadows the tensions all disciples and adherents to Jesus feel when they follow their Master. Already beginning in the womb Jesus is Spirit filled and this Spirit driven Jesus drives Jesus to do the unthinkable and the unthinkable scandalizes. The conventional wisdom of the day is tossed out the window. His entire life will be such. There is a deep divine plan afoot in our world and Joseph is now caught up in this divine web as we are also. He has an important role to play in this divine plan as do each of us.
In his dream Joseph is told that Mary’s child, Mary’s scandalous child, is the offspring of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit manifests itself in Jesus’ life and the scandalous child will be called EMMANUEL; GOD IS WITH US and when God is with us forgiveness and mercy flow like water over the Niagara Falls. Not only will Emmanuel be with us at his birth but also, as Matthew writes in the very last line of his Gospel: ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age’ (Mt 28: 20). Not only will Emmanuel God be with us during our most joyous moments, he will also be with us when clouds block the sunlight in our lives.
In the end Joseph wakes up not because he heard the family rooster crow as we wake up to an alarm clock. Matthews is really telling his readers that Joseph wakes up to a new reality, a Spirit and scandal-filled reality. Jesus is setting his and our world on a new trajectory. It will be a rough ride but in the end it will bring us to life, life everlasting, forgiveness of sin and salvation.
In the end Joseph takes Mary into his home. This means he accepts the new truth that is developing in Mary’s womb. He will protect it, nurture it and love it and like a carpenter he will build on it. Let us pray that we too will wake up from our stupor and embrace Jesus’ Spirit-scandal filled world.