We are now in the period of immediate preparation for Christmas and the scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent reflect this with the first reading being an extract from Isaiah which explicitly predicts the Virgin Birth. This text is chosen by the Church for the liturgy this Sunday in order to highlight the fact that it was not just the coming of a Messiah that was foretold in the Old Testament but even some of the circumstances of his birth, most especially the fact that he was to be born of a virgin mother.
The Gospel text then provides us with the account of the immediate events leading up to the birth of Jesus and explicitly quotes the prophecy of Isaiah which we already heard in the first reading. The key character in the extract set before us is Joseph to whom all the circumstances are revealed in a dream.
Matthew’s Gospel contains more about St Joseph than any of the other Gospel writers. St Luke mentions him seven times but none of these tell us very much about Joseph himself. He only gets one brief mention in the Gospel of Mark and two passing references in the Gospel of John.
Matthew is much more explicit and we are told about the four extraordinary dreams of Joseph the first of which is presented to us in today’s reading. In a further dream, he is instructed to take his family into Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath and then once the danger is over another dream informs him that it is now safe to return home to Israel. The final dream warns him to go to Galilee instead of Judea.
About the only actual description of Joseph in the Bible is also given by Matthew in today’s reading where it simply states that he was a man of honour. This says a very great deal about Joseph and anyone would be quite proud to have those words said about them as a final epitaph, that they were a person of honour.
I suppose it is because Matthew was a Jew that he tells us more about Joseph. It was important to the Jews to be able to identify one’s father for it was from your father that you were able to establish your legitimacy.
Anyway, the main point is that Joseph did the right thing. The true paternity of Mary’s child is revealed to him in the dream and he does what he is asked by the Angel and marries Mary and protects her and the child Jesus, returning only to his own village once things were safe for them. These are indeed honourable actions for which he is to be highly commended.
We admire Joseph because he does not question the Angel; he simply does what he is asked to do, recognising that these instructions come ultimately from God. We would do well to imitate Joseph in our own lives especially when we are faced with circumstances which are far from ideal. We should take him for our model and do the right thing at the time when it is needed.
And the fact that Joseph does his duty and protects Mary and Jesus in time of danger is something else that he ought to be commended for. A husband protects his wife, a wife protects her husband and both protect their child. These after all are the principal duties that fall to those who are married. Carrying out these responsibilities is important for the welfare of each family and indeed serves the good of society as a whole.
In these final days of Advent we prepare ourselves to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Let’s not, however, focus on all the practical preparations, all the shopping, all the decorating and all the cooking. What we have to understand is that it is far more important for us, who profess ourselves to be Christians, at this particular time to focus on the actual events of Christ’s birth.
As we come to the end of the Advent season we ought to be spending time in thinking and meditating on the Christmas mysteries. We ought take a little time out to read for ourselves the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus and let them speak to us. Our prayers in this immediate pre-Christmas period should be centred on the coming of the Saviour of the World. And as we do these things, as we meditate on the birth of Christ, our hearts will be filled with hope for all that he represents.
We realise that this was not just any birth, miraculous enough as all births are in themselves; but our recognition is that this is the birth of the one who has come to redeem and save the world. The coming of Jesus is the coming of our salvation, it is the coming of the one who forgives our sins and it is the coming of the Son of God who invites us to share in the life of heaven.
These are weighty things. These are matters of the greatest possible significance. What was achieved through the birth of Jesus was nothing less than the irrevocable first step in the salvation of the entire word.
For some people, most notably those who do not profess the Christian faith, the story of the birth of the Christ Child is nice but not significant. For many it is a beautiful story but of no greater consequence than a legend. Many of those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith simply don’t know what to make of the Biblical accounts of the Virgin Birth; for them it is an event whose significance is totally unclear.
But for us Christians the events that took place on the hillside in Bethlehem are earth shattering because they open up for us the road to glory. These events are what make eternal life in heaven possible. For us there is nothing that could surpass their importance.
This explains the joy in our hearts as we celebrate the feast of Christmas. This explains why we want to make up with those we have offended. This is the reason we want to confess our sins. This is the motive behind our celebrations. This tells you why we want to give each other gifts. This tells you too why we come to Church and give praise to God on that most special day of the year.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket