Year A: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Jesus will be born of Mary, the betrothed of Joseph, a son of David

Matthew 1:18-24

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Think of a time when you were facing serious difficulty. Were you able to trust in God’s presence in the situation, or did you feel that everything depended on you?
  2. Where have you been moved by Joseph’s kind of openness to God’s “unpredictable projects” in your life?
  3. Joseph foregoes his rights as an injured husband and chooses to apply the law sensitively…to do the merciful thing. Have you ever responded with mercy at the cost of your own reputation or when justice seemed at odds with mercy? Explain
  4. What is your personal learning or “take-away” from Joseph about faith?

Biblical Context

Matthew 1:18-24
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD

Matthew’s Gospel the announcement of Jesus’ conception and saving role is not made to Mary, as it is in Luke’s story of the annunciation (see Luke 1:26-38), but to Joseph. Through his story of the annunciation Matthew is teaching his audience a post-resurrection understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Matthew teaches that Jesus is God’s son by telling us that Mary conceived Jesus, not with Joseph, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. First Matthew tells us, “When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Then, Matthew pictures the angel explaining this marvelous event to Joseph: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” This story, like other stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, is primarily a Christological story, that is, it teaches the identity of Jesus as that identity was understood in the light of the resurrection.

Notice that Joseph is addressed as “son of David.” That Joseph is of the house of David is important because the Jews expected God to save the people from their political adversaries through someone in King David’s line. Even though Jesus is not biologically a descendant of Joseph, nevertheless, he is, through Joseph, a member of the house of David. Joseph is instructed to accept Jesus’ mother as his wife, to accept Jesus as his son, and to name Jesus. Thus Jesus becomes Joseph’s legal son and a member of the house of David. The name that Joseph is to give his son is Jesus,
“because he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus means God saves. The angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save the people not from foreign domination, but from “their sins.”

Matthew then uses a formula that often appears in his Gospel: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet.” Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience. By using this formula Matthew is teaching his audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to them. The passage that Matthew quotes appears in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” When read in the context of Matthew’s Gospel the virgin in question is Mary, the son is Jesus, and the name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us,” is claiming that Jesus is God. By using Isaiah’s words in this way Matthew is discovering a meaning in Isaiah’s words that was not understood either by Isaiah or by his contemporaries. Notice that Matthew attributes this added level of meaning to God rather than to the prophet: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet. Only in the light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were Isaiah’s words understood to be referring to the virginal conception and the incarnation. Neither of these marvelous events was expected.

While the core teaching in today’s Gospel is Jesus’ identity as God’s own son, God incarnate, the Gospel also gives us a picture of Joseph. Matthew tells us that Joseph was “a righteous man.” On finding that his espoused was already with child Joseph was “unwilling to expose her to shame,” so he “decided to divorce her quietly.” In Joseph’s culture for a woman to have conceived a child before living with her husband was a crime deserving of death. Deuteronomy tells us that in such a case “They shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 22:21). Evidently Joseph, despite heartbreak, was a very kind person. He was also obedient: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had
commanded him and took his wife into his home.” The essence of the angelic communication is that a deeper divine plan is at work and Joseph is part of it. His role is to shelter Mary and name the child “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This naming is appropriate activity for Joseph, not only because he is of the house of David and therefore establishes Jesus as a son of David, but also because he is no stranger to the inner struggles of sin and forgiveness. His righteous intention with regard to Mary can be read as a creative attempt to bring love into the world of law, to extend forgiveness to what looked like sin. He should name the child Jesus for the very presence of the child is a catalyst for clarifying his own deeper instincts firming the path he was going to take, and encouraging him on the path that now lies before him.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ into our own hearts and homes we can use Joseph as our model: How can we become more and more loving in our relationships with one another?

Making a Home for Spirit

Spiritual Commentary
John Shea

Christian imagination has never been satisfied with the Gospels. The stories are often theologically succinct and, if meditated on, spiritually rich. As one teenager told me, “They leave out too much good stuff.” Of course, Christians have felt obliged to fill in the gaps. One storyline has Joseph and Jesus working in their Nazareth carpentry shop. As Joseph teaches the secrets of the hammer, the plane, and the saw to the boy who “grows in age, wisdom, and grace” (Luke2:52; trans, mine), he also confides in him his life “learnings.” As with all parents, Joseph talks too much. But the boy is an exceptional listener to the one speaking:

Remember, Jesus, whatever we’re making, along with it we’re always making a home for Spirit. Your mother thinks a home for Spirit is like an empty cup. But I favor a spacious room with a large window for sun—and a door that is hard to find.

The best way to begin is to clear a space, and the best way to clear a space is to stop the mind from judging. Whenever things seem simple and obvious and the mind is feasting on its certainty and outrage, go slow. There is more than you think, only it hasn’t appeared yet. Judgment stops the appearance of more. It cuts down people and situations to the little you know. It closes possibilities.

Also when you do not judge, you often avoid disgracing another. The law is our measure. It is a tool of judgment, but someone always wields it. Do not use it as a hammer to hit or a saw to cut. Our tools are to fashion a table, not to brutalize the wood. The law is a tool to fashion a people of love, but it can break people and lose its sense of purpose. It always fears life will get out of control. So it wants to make examples of people who break it. It feeds and grows strong on transgression. It smacks its lips over scandal. But scandal is not the same as real offense. Scandal can be the irruption of God’s love that our feeble minds have yet to understand. So find a way to honor the law and honor the person who, in our limited understanding, has broken it. This is not easy.

It requires making law work for love. Love is the sun; law its furthest and often weakest ray. If you hold onto love, you will see how the law can reflect it. If you lose love, law will not substitute for it. It will only be something you use to promote yourself and punish others. When you love the person through the law, you shape the law to the reality that is always more than you know. This gives life a chance to breathe and people a chance to change. And the deepest change will not be in other people, but in yourself. Love takes the beam out of your own eye. It does not focus on the splinters in the eyes of others.

Once something happened and I was tempted to judge and punish. But I held back and waited, and a deeper door opened—the door that is hard to find. I was led into a room of sun, a home for Spirit. Your mother and you were there—and a presence of light who talked to my fear. I sensed all distances had been traversed, all separations connected. It was a dream, but it was not sleep. The dream awakened me. It took the beam out of my eye. I saw that making a home for Spirit is an endless adventure— like you growing up, my son.

So see everything twice, Jesus. See it once with the physical eye and then see it again with the eye of the heart. At first glance, you often see an uneven and unusable piece of wood. You may be about to throw it away. But do not be fooled by surface appearances. Look deeper. On second glance, you may see a lovely arm of a chair hidden in its unaccustomed shape. When you see the loveliness, Jesus, embrace it. Take it into your home. Do not hesitate and do not ask questions. Argue with everything, Jesus, but be obedient to love.

The boy listened.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.