Fourth Sunday of Advent Year
There is a shift today’s gospel with the focus away from the end times to the lead up to Jesus’ birth and Joseph’s reaction to the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy. The words “Do not be afraid” are heard as always when something new happens in the scriptures with a call to be open to God in changing times. Fear continues to be a guest on our national table as well as our personal lives. It motivates the decisions of our national leaders, our neighbours, and friends. It holds us back from a more humane and compassionate future and recognise the burdens all of us, near or far, also carry.
The birth narratives that we will be hearing are more than sweet lullabies but are incendiary stories as they boldly contradict Roman imperial authority. Advent is a dangerous season, when competing visions and loyalties go head-to-head. Jesus’ birth was considered a subversion of present arrangements even though Christmas has been thoroughly domesticated to serve reigning economic and political purposes.
The social exclusion the pregnant Mary faces accompanies many women in her situation. Social exclusion forms part of the geography of deprivation, poor education, lack of skills, poor housing, and violence. Mary’s vulnerability, being powerless and open to attack, is shared by many people in today’s world who are vulnerable because of their powerlessness, who are in the grip of poverty, abuse, racial and sexual discrimination, refugees, the disabled, and the vulnerability of our planet with species becoming extinct, fires raging, floods and famine. The vulnerability experienced in the face of power and wealth is shared by a vulnerable God who comes in ways that open the possibility of attack, abuse, and woundedness. Are our eyes open to signs of the coming of this vulnerable God who always comes in unexpected ways? God enters aching flesh. The young woman is with child. What could be more of flesh of changes that envelope a mother to be than the yearning and aches of desire, tender love or impulsive urge, pain and fatigue, soaring joys as well as wearying confusions, wondrous power, anguishing powerlessness, surging hope. We need to hold on to God with us – Emmanuel - who enters all the confusions, mess, sinfulness, and joy of our lives to make them holy and human.
What is being conceived in all of us is a name meaning ‘God Is With Us’ - not just some of us ….. and more so, those we would exclude, to emphasise God’s preference for the poor. It means being with, being present, going out, sharing, asking, looking into one another’s eyes and getting to know one another. Pope Francis has in his way broken open the Church’s imagination to see love for the poor as a way of life, rather than a guilty obligation, a romanticised ideal, or intellectual exercise. He challenges us to break beyond the limits of “serving” the poor and draw near to them and remember them as friends. The shock and the scandal of the good news is ‘the furious love of God’ (Chesterton) who is the only God who loves those the corporate gods despise, the so-called sinners, the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the slack ones, the ones who continue to fail. God is with us as never before in our flesh born of a woman in healing with a touch, forgiving with a word, instilling courage into hopeless hearts; betrayed by a kiss, put to death, but also raised. Those who have suffered losses this year will deeply feel the gaps and holes left by the death of a parent, child, sibling or dear friend. This God comes every day to touch those places of pain and suffering with compassion and love and enable us to recognise the face of Jesus in the many ‘others’ that cross our paths. Healing the wounds of the world will not come about by creating some amazing non-profit, promoting a grand, sweeping movement, or crafting amazing talking points, but through a series of personal undertakings by each one of us. This requires love not fear, dispossession from patriarchal values or humble presence. Remembering them as friends means not looking for big, glossy moments of change, but for opportunities to join in the rawness of everyday life. Ask not how you can be of service, but how you can be in friendship. God is always coming to us in surprising places and surprising [less expected] people to offer new life. It is not just about ministry and service to others but allow them to minister to us and reveal God’s face to us.
Joseph does not get much attention in the Church, Matthew begins with him at centre stage. There are no angelic annunciations, Mary and Elizabeth embracing, or shepherds and innkeepers. Joseph receives God’s revelation in his dreams. Naming the child, ‘Jesus’ (the liberator), and ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us and will be with us), tells us that the chill of our world has been pierced by a love that will not let go of us. Matthew begins with a baby who is ‘God with us,’ and the gospel ends with the promise that this ’child’ will be with us till the end of time. We might ponder with Joseph the meaning of the name of Jesus, ‘he will save,’ and ‘is saving’ and it is God who is acting here in our world and in our lives – even when we fall short. The good news is that God responds to faithfulness by generating new life. Joseph is a sign of the many who practise faithfulness without fuss or fanfare. It is repeated in peoples’ lives over and over again in our parishes, local communities, cities and rural places. They do not look for big, glossy moments of change, but seek opportunities to enter into the messiness and rawness of peoples’ lives.
Matthew presents Joseph as a person of great spiritual stature. With boldness, daring courage and strength of character he stood up against his community to take Mary as his wife – a community that no doubt wanted her stone. Whatever he felt about Mary being with child was turned to grace as love protecting a vulnerable woman to the extent that he took he with him to Bethlehem rather than leave her alone in Nazareth. Here we are called to consider the vulnerable people among us and beyond - the marginalised, the powerless, the homeless, the refugees, those living in poverty or being abused, those discriminated against because of race, sexual orientation, religion. Who protects them from an unjust world? Are there ways that God might being asking us to be their protectors at this season of the year?
Advent calls us, like Joseph, to be ready for unexpected, often unhoped-for, change. God offers, as Paul says, more than we could ever ask or imagine. Perhaps the lesson of Advent is that it's not so much we who are the ones waiting, but God who comes to our door and appears in dreams, asking, "Will you, like Joseph, adopt my plan? Will you make room for Emmanuel in ways you've never imagined?" Will you act like a protector of the vulnerable in your space as did Joseph? Our challenge is to recognise God’s presence in all situations and circumstances. A particular awareness of, and care for, those who have significant need is a visible reflection of God’s care. Whatever we may choose to do, and be for others, is the key to experiencing Emmanuel again this Advent, is to offer ourselves to be ‘little Emmanuels’ in practical ways in our own world.
Eternal Spirit, Lover of our souls and bodies,
We thank you and praise you for your enduring love.
May we cherish our own embodiment
as we do yours – that fleshly-wrap housing the Spirit
of infinitesimal power and grace.
May we continue to honor the Temple within,
and gratefully treat our body
that reflects your very presence.
In the name of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Amen.