18 December 2016: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Is 7:10-14 Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6 Rom 1:1-7 Mt 1:18-24


Advent: becoming present to incarnation mystery

Purple_banner_sm As our Advent waiting and preparation for the Lord’s coming at Christmas comes to a close, the Lectionary presents RCIA participants and the believing community with the mystery of God-with-us.

In the first reading Isaiah tells the embattled king Ahaz to ask God for a reassuring sign. Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, but God provides one: Ahaz’s young wife will have a son (indicating Ahaz’s line will continue) and that this son (the future king Hezekiah) will represent God’s presence to Ahaz’s subjects. Christians understood Isaiah’s prophecy about a miraculous birth and God-with-us as referring to the incarnation.

In the second reading from the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul describes Jesus’ human and divine origins. First, “according to the flesh,” Jesus was descended from David and therefore the messiah. Then, “according to the spirit of holiness”–another way of saying “the Holy Spirit”–Jesus was also the Son of God. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to introduce today’s gospel.

In the gospel, Mathew describes the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. To see the tensions in Matthew’s story, we need to understand social customs of the times:

  • Jewish marriage customs. First-century Jewish marriage had two phases:
    • Betrothal: During this period, the bride remained with her family while the bride’s and groom’s parents arranged and negotiated the marriage. On agreement, both families’ patriarchs publicly announced the marriage. The bride continued to live in her father’s house for up to a year.
    • Coming-together: In the second phase, the groom took the bride from her father’s house and brought her to his house. The groom’s removal of the bride from her family completed the marriage process.

During the betrothal phase, a bride who had sex with a man other than the groom was considered an adulteress. To dissolve a Jewish marriage, the groom applied to the synagogue leaders for a writ of divorce. The groom could also have the adulterous bride punished under Mosaic law by stoning. Roman law, however, forbade Jewish capital punishment; instead it required a public trial to grant a divorce.

  • The angel’s message. Appearing in Joseph’s dream, the angel confirms that Mary is pregnant not by another man, but through God’s action. The angel tells Joseph to do two things: First, Joseph should complete their marriage by taking Mary “into his home.” Second, Joseph should claim the child as his son “by naming him Jesus.” This act gives Jesus all Joseph’s heredity rights, including his royal descent from David.

As we come to the end of our Advent waiting, the readings ask RCIA participants and the whole believing community to consider the mysteries of Jesus’ birth. For Isaiah, Ahaz’s son represented hope and presence. For Paul, Jesus is both David’s human son and God’s own son. For Matthew, God’s inbreaking disrupted Mary’s and Joseph’s simple lives, creating social tension (a betrothal pregnancy) and possible danger (Mosaic law’s punishment). The incarnation mystery makes God present to humans (God-with-us, Emmanuel) in new ways. God is fully human in Jesus who was born, lived, taught, healed, fed, forgave, died, and rose. The incarnation mystery also initiates God’s continuing presence with humans though sacramental forms and encounters. God is fully present with us. Are we fully present to this mystery?

—Terence Sherlock

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