Fourth Sunday in Advent - Year A
Notes on the Gospel
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife. (Matthew 1:18-24 - NRSV)
1. Scholars generally agree that Mark is the earliest of the three Synoptic Gospels. Luke and Matthew depend on Mark plus a mysterious source scholars have dubbed Q (from the German word, Quelle, meaning “source”) plus their own distinct sources.
2. Where Luke pays particular attention to Mary in his infancy narrative, Matthew pays particular attention to Joseph.
3. Each of the Gospel writers emphasizes the connections between Jesus’ life and teachings on the one hand and people, events and teachings from the tradition as told in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospel writers are keen to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of what has been promised. We find in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, a good example of this: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” (see Isaiah 7:14).
4. Along the same lines, we also note the angel’s proclamation in Matthew 1:20-21 echoes similar proclamations of births in the Hebrew Scriptures – see Genesis 16:11-12 (Ishmael), Genesis 17:19 (Isaac), 1 Chronicles 22:9-10 (Solomon) and 1 Kings 13:2 (Josiah).
5. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Jews saw marriage more in terms of a civil contract than as a religious ritual. Engagement or betrothal was taken very seriously and had legal consequences – see Deuteronomy 20:7 & 22:23-27. The marriage was, typically, arranged through elders in the families and the parties to the marriage were normally very young by our modern standards – the minimum age for a male was 13 and for the female 12. Apart from the forbidden degrees of kinship – see Leviticus 18 – it was customary to marry within tribes or families.
The betrothal took place at the home of the bride and during the ceremony the husband-to-be presented the wife and her father with the marriage contract and a “bride-price”. It might be anything up to several years before the actual marriage took place and the bride moved out of her father's house and into the house with her husband.
6. Deuteronomy 22:23-27 says:
“If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.”
With this law in mind, Mary’s pregnancy seems to have confronted Joseph with a situation not dissimilar to that which confronted Jesus in the incident of the so-called “woman caught in adultery” – see John 8:1-11. Should Joseph allow the law to take its course? Matthew says: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (1:19). Divorce was basically a written notice, signed by two witnesses, that the husband had in fact divorced his wife, setting her free to marry someone else.
7. It is important to note how this terribly situation confronting Joseph is resolved. As so often is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, a higher order of reality - and law - emerges: “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” – see also Genesis 16:7-13 & 22:11; Exodus 3:2; Numbers 22:22; Judges 6:11-24 & 13:3 and Zechariah 1:11 & 3:1.
an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In our modern Western world, we are prone to think of dreams as windows on the past. Many in the therapeutic industry assure us they are a way to healing the hurts of the past. In the world of Joseph and Mary, dreams are a window on the future. They are a way to opening us to God and the ultimate healing of the Kingdom of God, that state of reality in which truth triumphs over the lie, love has the victory over hate, peace replaces violence and life does away with death.
In Genesis 28: 10-17, we read of Jacob’s dream. In part the account tells us:
“(And the Lord said to Jacob) ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.”
There are probably no better examples of dreams in the Bible than this dream of Jacob and the dream of Joseph. The dream is shown to be an experience of encounter with the living God, an event in which the great promise – “I am with you!” – is being fulfilled.
Past, present and future are in the hands of God. The best way to live in the present moment is to open ourselves to God’s Presence. In the Presence of God we can enter the Eternal Now. The more our consciousness is imbued with the Eternal Now, the more we can enter the ordinary now with freedom and grace. People who are transformed by the Eternal Now will be a transforming presence in the ordinary now.
Michael Whelan SM