Advent 4, 18 Dec 22
Most of us are familiar with the prayer that is today`s Collect which follows the Kyries at the beginning of the Mass, for it is the same as the final prayer of The “Angelus” which we say before Morning or Evening Prayer each day – and a beautiful prayer it is too. It is particularly beautiful because we are incorporated into the message to Mary of the Angel Gabriel, that the Messiah would be brought forth fully human into the world as God and Man through Mary`s co-operation with the will of God.
As we have progressed through the daily and Sunday readings we have re-discovered much and today, in those few verses from chapter 7 of Isaiah, , when Isaiah speaks to King Ahaz he says: `The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel, a name which means “God-is-with-us” so signifying that the child will be both God and man.
The responsorial psalm too echoes the prophecy of Isaiah as we all declare: “Let the Lord enter! He is the king of glory.”
Today`s Gospel reading from chapter 1 of St. Matthew`s Gospel begins at verse 18, in earlier days it would have begun at verse 1 showing the genealogy, or Family Tree of the Holy Child Jesus, our Messiah, going right back to Abraham in typical Jewish fashion through the male line and only then comes the passage which we heard of how Jesus was born and the shock Joseph had in discovering that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant! Very little, it seems to me, is generally said about this but it must have been a massive shock to Joseph finding his-wife-to-be pregnant and he not being the father. Clearly, Joseph was a man with a big heart for we are told the his was minded to divorce Mary informally, to spare her disgrace. According to Jewish Law he should have returned Mary to her parents. Jewish marriage was seen as a cementing and strengthening of bonds between two families and betrothal, unlike our engagement to be married, was much more the first step in the two families accepting the marriage contract with the contract being completed when the man took the woman into his own house. The punishment for adultery was being stoned to death! Joseph , out of kind ness, decided to divorce Mary informally to save all round embarrassment, but the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, `Joseph, son of David (emphasising the royal line and Family Tree) do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. His decision to stand by Mary is an extraordinary expression both of his compassion for Mary and his trust in God. In Jewish law of the time a babe in the womb, outside of marriage, would be considered the property of the natural father and if the natural father was not revealed then the expectant mother would be returned to her family who would have her stoned to death for adultery and the disgrace it would bring to the family. Joseph`s faith in God after receiving the message from the angel avoided all the suffering and from that moment Joseph became the foster-father of the Son of God and after the Holy Child`s birth bringing Him up as his own.
The key words of the Gospel reading for today are the angel`s message, `Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived whagt is in her by the Holy spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.`
All this is the fulfilment of that which we heard a little earlier in chapter 7 of the prophesy of Isaiah `…that the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son who she will call Emmanuel, a name which means “God-is-with-us”.
The message “DO NOT BE AFRAID…” is a timely one for us in an age where many people seem to be consumed with fear of all sorts of things: Climate change, the escalating costs of living, many families on the bread line, Wars and rumours of wars, mistrust between nations, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and so on. And to be cowed by fear is to play into the devil`s hands for fear is following the way of despair which is the very opposite of the freedom, hope and salvation which is the message of Our Lord`s incarnation which we shall celebrate with purpose in just one week`s time when, as the carol puts it: `The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”.
Matthew`s message, written with God`s first-chosen people – the Jews – in mind because of his own history and background is pertinent for ALL. He was regarded as something of a traitpr by his own people for he was employed, as we know, as a tax-collector employed by the Roman occupying power and yet he chosen as one of The Twelve by Jesus our Saviour. He obeyed the command to “Follow me” which waws the life-changing moment in his life.
Of the four evangelists Matthew is unique in giving us, in his version of the Gospel of O ur Lord Jesus Christ, the vision that Joseph had of the angel saying, “Do not be afraid…” It is Matthew too who relates the story of the of the visit of the Wise Men and the Holy Family`s journey into exile in Egypt. St. Mark and St. John tells us nothing of the birth narratives of Jesus and St. Luke begins his Gospel with the story of the conception of St. John the Baptist followed by The Annunciation to Mary that she was to conceive and bear Jesus with Mary`s positive response to Gabriel`s message followed by the by the visitation of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth to help with the birth of John the Baptist and then the story of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Mary and joseph for the census and then the subsequent birth of Jesus.
So the message for us still is “DO NOT BE AFRAID…” precisely because with God all things are possible.