Sunday, December 22, 2019
4th Sunday of Advent
Liturgical Color: Violet
First reading: Isaiah 7:10–14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 24:1–2, 3–4, 5–6
Second reading: Romans 1:1–7
Gospel: Matthew 1:18–24
We pray, almighty God,
that, as the feast day of our salvation draws ever nearer,
so we may press forward all the more eagerly
to the worthy celebration of the mystery of your Son’s Nativity. – from the Postcommunion Prayer
Some parts of the readings for this day can seem obscure to even the most diligent reader. My purpose here is to shed some light on them by presenting what we know about them from biblical science and from the Church’s tradition.
“And Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask and I will not tempt the Lord.’” It is not from humility but from pride that he does not wish to ask for a sign from the Lord. For although it is written in Deuteronomy, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” and the Savior would use this as testimony against the devil, when Ahaz was told to ask for a sign he should have fulfilled the commandment in obedience, especially since both Gideon and Manoah sought and received signs. Although it was according to the ambiguity of the Hebrew expression ulo enasse adonai that everyone translated this as “I will not tempt the Lord,” it can also be read as “I will not exalt the Lord.” For the impious king knew that if he had asked for a sign, he would have received one, and the Lord would have been glorified. Like a worshiper of idols, therefore, who sets up altars on all the street corners and on mountains and in forests, he also was a fanatic for capriciousness. He did not want to ask for a sign because he was commanded to do so. – St. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 3.7.12
Who but the true God would dare to command a king to do something he was disinclined to do? But God also knew that this king, Ahaz, would reject the command, resulting in unexpected consequences. And who but the great linguist and Bible expert, St. Jerome, would have known that the king’s response was ambiguous, so as to condemn his indifferentism.
[Some people] say that it is not written in the prophecy “virgin” but “young woman.” To which it may be answered that “young woman” and “virgin” mean the same thing in Scripture, for in Scripture, “young woman” refers to one who is still a virgin. Furthermore, if it was not a virgin that gave birth, how would it be a sign, something extraordinary? Listen to Isaiah, who says, “For this reason the Lord himself shall give you a sign,” and immediately he adds, “Behold, the virgin.” So if it were not a virgin that would give birth, it would not be a sign. – Theophylact, Explanation of Matthew 23
Theophylact is backed by a number of other Fathers of the Church in this interpretation of the prophet’s words. The idea is not that they preferred the Greek Septuagint translation to the original Hebrew, but that the Hebrew as interpreted by many modern scholars is incorrect. That regardless of the wording of the Hebrew, its interpretation must follow what the text meant in the prophet’s time, and also to the Apostles and Fathers, who used the passage as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah.
The Apostle Paul introduces himself to the Roman Christians. He is a “servant of Jesus Christ,” meaning that he has given his life to the Savior of all. He is “called to be an Apostle,” because that same Savior has sent him to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to all nations. Paul is also “set apart,” consecrated for this mission from before his birth.
Meanwhile, the “Gospel of God” concerning his Son, Jesus Christ, was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” It was by his “resurrection from the dead” that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness,” so that through him “we have received grace and apostleship,” meaning that all of us Christian have inherited some grace and privilege of being apostles of our Lord and Savior. (This is related to our having received the honor of the common priesthood of the chosen people, which is the origin of our right to receive a portion of the sacrifice in holy Communion.) It is for us, then, to hold his name sacred among all the nations, “to bring about the obedience of faith” among all mankind. We must not be like King Ahaz in the first reading, but obedient to the Holy Spirit.
We can say with St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 108, a. l; Commentary on Romans 1, 1) that the core of the Gospel has to do with uniting men and God, a union which takes a perfect form in Christ but an imperfect one in us. The superiority of the Gospel over the Old Law consists in the grace of the Holy Spirit, which Christ confers on us. Therefore, the Gospel, to which the Apostles dedicated themselves, is, at one and the same time, a series of truths revealed by our Lord, the saving power of grace and the Church-in-action. – Navarre Bible Commentary
Hidden, as it were, in the midst of this barrage of breathless facts is another point concerning ourselves, which is the point of all the objective evidence:
“Called to be saints”: literally “called saints.” This is not just a way of speaking: St. Paul really is saying that Christians are “called” in the same kind of way as the Israelites were so often called through Moses (Numbers 10:1–4). In the Christians’ case, the calling is to form the new people of God, one of whose characteristic features is holiness. Basing itself on this and other Pauline texts, the Second Vatican Council has this to say: “As Israel according to the flesh which wandered in the desert was already called the Church of God (cf. 2 Ezra 13:1; cf. Numbers 20:4; Deuteronomy 23:1ff), so too, the new Israel, which advances in this present era in search of a future and permanent city (cf. Hebrews 13:14), is called also the Church of Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18). (Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, 9)
This is in fact the basis of the “universal call to holiness.” All Christians, by virtue of their Baptism, should live in line with what that means: they are called to be saints and their whole life should be a pursuit of holiness. – Navarre Bible Commentary
This is what Paul’s greeting, “Grace to you and peace,” is all about. It is the Holy Spirit’s gift to us, who have received the forgiveness of our sins and have been made holy. The distinct Persons of God were not revealed until the Son, Jesus Christ, entered his own creation to redeem it on the cross. In this way, we have not just a new and definitive revelation of God, but also his blessing of inner well-being by joining his chosen people, in spite of the external ups and downs of natural life, in which we all participate because of the common lot of mankind.
Last year at this time, we were given the story of Christ’s incarnation according to Mary’s perspective, through Luke’s Gospel. The genealogy of Jesus which we find in that Gospel manifests the natural line of descent through Mary. This year, through Matthew’s Gospel, the same incarnation story is given according to Joseph’s perspective. The genealogy given by Matthew, which traces the legal line of descent through Joseph, provides Jesus a fully legitimate Jewish lineage.
Joseph is a man of sterling moral character, committed to living by the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 6:25; Luke 1:6). put her to shame: The Greek verb does not necessarily have a negative connotation. It simply means “to expose” or “to exhibit,” send her away. Catholic tradition proposes three main interpretations to explain why Joseph resolved to end his betrothal with Mary. (1) The Suspicion Theory. Some hold that Joseph suspected Mary of adultery when he discovered her pregnancy. Joseph thus intended to pursue a divorce in accord with Deuteronomy 24:1–4 until the angel revealed to him the miraculous cause of the conception (1:20). Joseph is said to be righteous because he shuns immorality and directs his life by the Law of God. Proponents of this view include St. Justin Martyr, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. (2) The Perplexity Theory. Others hold that Joseph found the situation of Mary’s pregnancy inexplicable. Divorce seemed to be his only option, and yet he wished to do this quietly, for he could not bring himself to believe that Mary had been unfaithful. Joseph is said to be righteous because he lives by the Law of God and judges Mary’s situation with the utmost charity. The main proponent of this view is St. Jerome, whose exegesis was adopted into the notes of the medieval Bible. (3) The Reverence Theory. Still others hold that Joseph knew the miraculous cause of Mary’s pregnancy from the beginning, i.e., he was made aware that the child was conceived “of the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Faced with this, Joseph considered himself unworthy to be involved in the Lord’s work, and his decision to separate quietly from Mary was a discretionary measure to keep secret the mystery within her. On this reading, the angel confirms what Joseph had already known and urges him to set aside pious fears that would lead him away from his vocation to be the legal father of the Messiah (1:20). Joseph is said to be righteous because of his deep humility and reverence for the miraculous works of God. Proponents of this view include St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas. – Ignatius Catholic Study Bible
Regardless of which theory we follow, the angel’s message, given to Joseph by way of a dream, resolves the dilemma, urging him to accept Mary into his home regardless of appearances or disinclination, because in this way, Jesus will be born and raised in total obscurity, as the presumed son of Joseph and Mary. This is part of the “Messianic secret,” so that neither the king, the people, nor even Satan will know the real identity of the Son of God until his mission is accomplished.
Another part of this Messianic secret is the angel’s command that Joseph is to name Mary’s child Jesus, which was a popular name in his time. But on a different level, the name in its original form (“Joshua”) means “the Lord saves.” The angel specifically tells Joseph that the name is appropriate, because he will save his people from their sins, hinting at the child’s divine nature. Among the Israelites of that era, it was the father’s prerogative and duty to legally recognize his offspring by bestowing a name. This is how Joseph is known to the civil authorities and the people as the father of the child.
It is interesting how nature and supernature are interwoven in these passages on the Incarnation. Our own destiny follows the same pattern, as can be seen in 1 Corinthians 15:45–50:
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living soul”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.