Angelic visits to Joseph make Advent possible

Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle A Is 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24


In today’s first reading, we meet Ahaz, king of Judah. Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south), once united under David and Solomon, have long since separated into rival kingdoms. Some 200 years down the Davidic line, Ahaz takes the throne and disgraces the dynasty with infidelity to the Lord. As his enemies — including Israel — join forces against him, he panics and seeks aid from a formidable Assyrian king.

Despite Ahaz’s offenses, the Lord God continues to honor his covenant promise to David’s house. At God’s prompting, Isaiah reassures Ahaz that God has not abandoned him and that he need not resort to a perilous alliance to escape danger.

As proof of his firm support and protection, the Lord even offers to do something extraordinary. Reluctant to offend his Assyrian ally, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, hiding behind the excuse, “I will not tempt the Lord!” Isaiah announces the sign anyway: “…the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

Psalm 24 extols the Lord’s kingship over “the earth and its fullness, the world and those who dwell in it.” This One’s reign knows no bounds; it attracts all persons to seek God’s face with clean hearts and hands. In Romans 1, St. Paul manifests this universal vision as he explains his call as apostle to the Gentiles.

Chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel of Matthew comprise what scholars call his “infancy narrative.” The evangelist uses dreams as the principal means of divine communication, especially when characters require course correction to fulfill the will of God.

Chapter 1 begins with a genealogy that traces the ancestral line, from Abraham to David, from David to the time of the Babylonian exile, and from the exile to Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.

The parade of male names stops four times for the mention of women, all Gentiles (with scandalous stories attached). This list with a twist functions as a dramatic set-up for this Sunday’s Gospel. It places Jesus in the honorable family of Abraham and David, even as it highlights the agency of women in irregular circumstances in the unfolding plan of the God of Israel.

After the genealogy, we come to today’s passage about the birth of Jesus. The evangelist first speaks of Mary, a Jewish woman, in circumstances irregular and scandalous. Betrothed to Joseph, Mary has become pregnant before living with her husband. Matthew’s account does not dwell on Mary’s dilemma but quickly shifts its focus to Joseph’s response.

Considering Mary’s situation and his own, Joseph makes the righteous and compassionate choice “to divorce her quietly.” He then finds himself the recipient of an angelic visitation that changes his course of action. His dream reveals that Mary’s child, conceived through the Holy Spirit, has a great destiny to fulfill as savior and presence of God among the people.

Joseph wakes and takes Mary under his protection. He then names and claims her son as his own, in accordance with the angel’s instruction. Joseph’s “yes” to God gives Jesus a firm place among his people and sets the stage for his unfolding destiny. (The name “Joseph” recalls the story of another ancient dreamer and interpreter of dreams.)

In the rest of chapter 2, we find Joseph once again living up to his name. An angel of the Lord appears in a dream, telling him to gather up the family and flee the wrath of Herod. So, the Holy Family takes up residence in Egypt (following the path of the ancestors) while Herod systematically eliminates the threat to his throne by killing off Jewish boys two and under.

Only after Herod dies does Joseph the dreamer get the word, first to return to Israel, then to settle a good distance away from Herod’s successor — in Nazareth.

Melanie holds a master’s in pastoral studies from Loyola University, New Orleans.

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