December 22, 2013
4th Sunday of Advent, Year A.
(edited and revised from a previous
Homily posted 12.13.2010)
[IMPORTANT NOTE: In this Homily I am following the thought of N.T. Wright]
The Gospel reading for this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, offers us the crux of the matter, really. That is, the decisive or most important point at issue is the origin of Jesus. That identity, which we hinted toward last Sunday, now comes round to us in full force.
Naiveté demands we take the account St. Matthew offers at face value, while sophistication demands that we look from the materialist world-view and the override of myth.
What are we to think? Is this miraculous event even possible? Or, said more pointedly, do we believe out of our need?
Well, of course, we believe things for any number of reasons, some of which are certainly self-serving, but does that reality mean that the miraculous, necessarily, does not occur? Or, could the incarnation — the theological term for what St. Matthew here describes — actually have happened anyway, despite our need for it?
THE INCARNATION IN SPACE AND TIME
Can you imagine the look on Joseph's face when he discovers, by angelic declaration no less, that the sexually unfaithful Mary had not been sexually unfaithful after all? On the surface this would appear to make things easier for him, but I assure you only on the surface.
I try to put myself in his position if not his frame of mind. How would I have reacted had I learned of my betrothed's unfaithfulness, only then to be told that she would instead be giving birth to a child conceived by God and not by adultery?
Think about it. Which would be easier to believe, the natural explanation or the supernatural? No matter where the truth is to be found, the beginning of Jesus would forever be suspect; there would always be questions. How do you tell friends and neighbors, "Well, she really wasn’t unfaithful, he's really conceived by God!" The looks of skepticism that blare loudly through the centuries must have also been shrill in Joseph's ears as well.
Perhaps the deeper question is why Matthew included this in the story of Jesus at all; why open him -- both Matthew & Jesus -- and the new fledgling faith to such ridicule? Perhaps this was given to answer these critics and skeptics. Anyway, it is clear that Matthew believed this to be the way things actually happened, for he tells us flatly:
"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..."
But, just because Matthew takes his history seriously, does this mean we should?
I think we must. For, what we are offered, even without the veneer of two-thousand years of church accretion, is the most important announcement in the history of the world. Do we need this incarnation to be true? Yes, of course we do. But does the fact we need it negate its possibility? It decidedly does not.
If there is a God at all, and if this God is benevolent (and we cannot really conceive of a God who is not), then we would expect this God to communicate with us in a way we could understand.
Now, what Matthew is telling us is that God has indeed heard our cry and has in fact spoken in a way we could understand. And, how has God accomplished this? God became part of the mess, part of the human condition. In this most startling and unexpected development, God, as Emmanuel, is pro nobis; God is for is, God is with us, even with all our sinfulness and self-inflicted wounds.
And this pro nobis, this for us, comes with the most surprising truth of all: GOD does not come as judge, but rather he comes as Savior, he comes to reclaim this world, so deeply lost and so deeply broken. I take this to mean that Christ is the Great Response of God's love to the world! The Emmanuel comes for the entire human race; he uniquely became the one who Redeems, the one who buys back, reclaims, and the one who, finally, vindicates the full promises of GOD.
That is why Advent, which leads us to the Nativity, is so profound, so monumental. Allow St. John to place meat on the bones of the incarnation:
15 “If you love me, obey my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. 17 He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you.[f] 18 No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. 19 Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live. 20 When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” (John 14:15-21)
No orphans here; no wanderers here, unless, of course, that is what one wishes. What a promise; what a Savior.
INCARNATING THE INCARNATION
But, this is not all. What must emphatically be said in the light of GOD’s response to the world in man Jesus Christ, is that incarnation must become the direction of GOD's people as well.
That is, we too must move toward the world not away from it. We who claim to have been touched by the incarnate one must now move outward toward the surrounding brokenness just as he did. We who claim the name of the Galilean Carpenter must act with consistent compassion and haste for a world in crisis, for a world at war with itself, just as he did.
I wonder, do we not see the importance here? Do we not hear the cries of the dying? Have we not yet heard the cholera filled streets and the swollen bellies of crying children? Or have we heard and are willing to ignore? Will we not act? For, you see, following Jesus means, supremely, there is something to be done!
Here the indictment against us is clear and compelling. We must not let the mis-guided belief that the Savior visited us from outside the world lead us to other-worldliness! This misses St. Matthew’s point entirely. It is the enfleshment of the Savior that is paramount. It is the God who is present, presenting himself as the God who is one of us; the God who is drawn down into the same sweat and mire that we daily face.
When I think in this direction I am always reminded of Albert Camus’s serious word to Christians:
"I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die."
Do we continue to struggle?
He also said:
He also said:
“Freedom is not made up principally of privileges; it is made up especially of duties."
Are Christians free? We say we are. Do Christians have hope? That is our chief claim, is it not? How is it then that Camus who is an atheist could act and we who have the hope of hopes live as if the rest of the world does not exist?
Camus indictment is similar to Ludwig Feuerbach's challenge:
“My only wish is…to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, devotees of prayer into devotees of work, candidates for the hereafter into students of the world, Christians who, by their own procession and admission, are "half animal, half angel" into persons, into whole persons.”
Would you be surprised to learn that Jesus expected nothing less! Back to St. John:
“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34, 35)
And, just how had Jesus loved them? He washed their feet -- this is service. And how would Jesus love them? He would go to the cross -- this is sacrifice.
So Joseph did as the angel commended and he married his betrothed. He withstood all the icy looks and judgmental smirks because for him the question of Jesus' identity was settled. He raised Jesus and saw to his needs. He took responsibility when responsibility was not really his. Here, then, begins the lesson of the incarnation and the cross.