4th Sunday of Advent – 18th December 2016

Stand up for what is just

Scripture Reading – Matthew 1:18-24

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph; being a man of honour and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfil the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son
and they will call him Emmanuel,
a name which means ‘God-is-with-us.’
When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home.

Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com

REFLECTION

“Stand up for what is just”

by Rosemary O’Connor & Patrick Sullivan

In this Sunday’s Gospel we hear of the difficult predicament Joseph finds himself in when he learns that Mary is pregnant. In the Jewish tradition there were three stages to getting married. First there was the engagement, then there was the betrothal, which was a very serious commitment and considered the first phase of the marriage and then finally the marriage itself. For a man to discover that the woman he was betrothed to was pregnant was a very serious issue and tantamount to adultery.

Joseph however was a very fair and just man; he knew he needed to take action however he decided to discreetly break off his relationship with Mary in order to save her from a terrible punishment. Joseph’s sense of justice is evident in how he was prepared to take a stand against the norms and laws of the time which would have dictated that Mary receive a suitable punishment for her assumed crime; in the culture and laws of the time a woman convicted of adultery would most likely be stoned to death.

When the angel appeared to Joseph to explain that Mary was carrying the son of God Joseph entered fully into the mystery of God and married Mary. In doing this he shows himself to be a man of great faith not only in God but also in people; despite initially thinking that he might have been betrayed by Mary he was still prepared to do the best he could by her. Joseph had no desire to see Mary suffer regardless of how he felt himself.

Joseph provides us with a good role model for standing up for what is just, regardless of what the local norms and culture tells us.

I was privileged to participate in a field visit to Honduras recently with Trócaire. Honduras is the focus of Trócaire’s Lenten campaign for 2017. The poverty in which the majority of Honduran people live becomes evident very quickly when you travel through the country. 64% of Honduran people live on less than €2 per day. Corruption is rife throughout the country. Human rights, resource rights and land rights are violated on a regular basis.

One of the statistics given to us in Honduras however remains ingrained in my mind; 9 out of 10 women in Honduras have suffered some form of physical violence. Gender based violence is a very serious issue in Honduras, and unfortunately many other countries. Its roots are cited as being cultural; a culture that has managed to perpetuate itself over many generations without being challenged. I was deeply moved by the Honduran women; their courage, their resilience, their desire for a different future for their children. I was greatly inspired by the work that Trócaire is doing, working with local community partners providing leadership training, legal support and empowering local women to find their voice and stand up for what is just. They are slowly, slowly turning the tide on gender based violence. Women are being empowered; young girls and boys are being educated to recognise that the norms and culture they have been operating in needs to be challenged. These women remind me of Joseph in this Sunday’s Gospel; they are women of great faith and they too recognise that the way things are usually done is not always the just way. Sometimes we need to step outside of the norm and find a way that is fairer and more just for everyone. We have a lot to learn from the women of Honduras.

As we enter into these last days before Christmas, a time of joyful celebration and giving, a time of plenty for many of us, we might stop to think about where we can stand up for what is just. Not everyone in our world, in our country or indeed in our community will be looking forward to a time of plenty. Let us resolve that 2017 will be a year where we will stand up and speak up for what is just. We too can play our part in turning the tide of injustice.

Wishing you all the blessings of this Christmas season.

LECTIO DIVINA

by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB

Introduction to Lectio Divine

Today’s gospel is intended to help us to prepare for a joyous and conscious celebration of the mystery of Christmas. One day our God decided to become one of us, and from that day, he is and always will be, God-with-us.  How can we fail to appreciate the fact that God wanted to be like us? Are we not proud to have a God who chose to be born, to grow, live and die as one of us? To make our gratitude real, we must pay a price.

As often happens, the good news brings with it another piece of news that is not so good … for some. When God decided to become a man, he asked for help. It was not easy for those who helped him. First Mary, and then Joseph, had to pay a high price to make it possible for God to become man. Today’s Gospel is precisely about this.

Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

Although it looks like a chronicle of the birth of Jesus, the Gospel story is, in fact, a proclamation of the divine motherhood of Mary. It relates what happened before Jesus was born. There is no mention here of the birth but of the time of Mary’s pregnancy.

The passage is divided into three parts: First, a very short account of the conception of Jesus before his mother Mary came to live with Joseph, her husband.  Second, the angel’s message to Joseph in a dream, in which the angel gives an explanation of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. And third, the brief comment on the immediate obedience of her husband Joseph, a just man. Just because the story tells the facts very briefly and without any emotion, does not mean that we should ignore its highly dramatic content for those taking part. A helpless mother and an embarrassed husband are the people who suffer in this announcement of the birth of Jesus.

The decision of God to enter human history interferes in the lives of some people. Mary was still a virgin, but she is already a mother. Before he even came to live with his wife, Joseph had to forego the physical act of fathering the child but had to take on the responsibility of a father. Although God intervenes directly in their lives, he does not explain directly, but by means of a messenger. The angel takes advantage of Joseph’s dream and ‘explains’ what happened. The words of the messenger are the centre of the story: the angel reveals that the Spirit is at the origin of the conception of Mary’s child, imposes a name on him, announces his mission as Saviour and foretells the fulfilment of a prophecy. When the situation is clarified, the just man has no choice – he must assent without delay. He has to stop dreaming and start obeying.

Meditate: apply what the text says to life

Without us God cannot do what he wants to do with us. God cannot be God-with-us, if we do not agree. Allowing God to be what he wants to be, demands radical obedience. God enters our world unexpectedly, but at a cost. He demands most of the people to whom he is closest.

Without prior notice, much less consent, Joseph discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was expecting a baby that he had not fathered. The narrator is quick to point out the divine origin of the pregnancy, but this left Joseph no less perplexed. It would have been easier for him to imagine infidelity on the part of his betrothed than a virginal conception. Without having yet overcome his uncertainty, Joseph, the just man that he was, decided to put her away secretly. The decision to abandon Mary without making it public was not a complete fulfilment of the Law (Deut. 24:1). Joseph’s ‘justice’ did not rely, therefore, on obedience to a law, but on the acceptance of the plan that God had in mind for him as told him by God’s messenger. Joseph faced a very painful situation without much clarification or consideration for his betrothed, but he planned to send her away without exposing her to reproach. Mary’s motherhood put him in serious trouble. The fact that God explained the situation to Joseph after the event had happened, and revealed the future of the child to him, did not make ​​it any easier to accept.

The action of God in Mary left Joseph without the place he had hoped to occupy in the family.  Before coming to live with Mary, Joseph had to decide whether, in accepting Mary as his wife, he was accepting the interference of God in his intimate life and the end of his most personal plans. He now knew that the birth of Jesus was the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy and ended the wait for the promised saviour, but this did not save him from having to sacrifice his greatest dream. Having to be the guardian of the family of God meant having to sacrifice being a father.  The fact that he had to act as father to the Son of God meant that he could not be a husband. He had to resign himself to having a child that he had not fathered. He had to act as father all his life to a child for whose birth he had not been responsible. This is how the God of the Incarnation acts. 

Joseph was without any doubt, together with Mary, the one who had to pay the highest price to make the incarnation of God possible. Because God wanted to be with us, Joseph had no choice but to allow God to ‘kidnap’ the life with Mary that they had planned together. Because he found in Joseph a man who knew how to sacrifice his dreams and wake up to a life of obedience, God was able to become ours, one among us, one of us.

God was able, therefore, to be born among us because God became man … and because some people like Joseph and Mary lent him their lives so that God could enter the world. Only radical obedience to God enabled them to accept the plan by which the child who had been foretold would not be theirs but God’s, and so the realization of God’s plan and the birth of his Son were made possible. It is Christmas whenever God finds believers who are willing to give up their plans, their children, their present and their future, to put themselves completely at God’s service.

It was Christmas when God found a father for his Son, the man who had to sacrifice being the husband of Mary. It will be Christmas again if there are believers willing to sacrifice their personal projects to allow God to fulfil his plans.

Remembering Joseph today should make us more cautious in our joy and more serious about our personal preparation for Christmas. Apart from Mary, nobody except Joseph knew in advance that God was planning to become like us and become one of us. And nobody but Joseph and Mary had to pay so high a price to allow God to fulfil his plan. If we wish to celebrate the God who became man, the memory of Joseph shows us that when God comes to men, he never comes in vain and he does not come without asking for a price to be paid. The first Christmas was possible not only because God wanted to be a man, but also because he found people who allowed him to be God with them, in their lives, even though this meant giving up their own projects and the way of life they had dreamed so much of.

It is pure illusion to want to celebrate Christmas, the mystery of God-with-us, and refuse to accept what God wants of us. God would come into our world, God would become a man like us, God would repeat today his first Christmas with us, if he found people like Joseph who were willing to sacrifice their own needs and serve God’s needs by doing whatever he asks of them.  God of the Incarnation needs believers who, like Joseph, will make God’s plan their own and dare to accept his Son, at the cost of allowing God to interfere in their own plans and even take away their best dreams. It is sad. Even though we celebrate Christmas so often, God is not able to enter the world!

Believing in Christmas today means making it possible for God to repeat it.  Our God still desires to be like us. He needs believers who trust him enough to accept him into their lives without fear. Perhaps God will find in some of us the justice he found in Joseph, so that Jesus can be born again in our world. This is our opportunity and our responsibility.

PRAYER

Lord, open our hearts to your grace.
Through the angel’s message to Mary
we have learned to believe in the incarnation of Christ your Son:
lead us by his passion and cross
to the glory of his resurrection.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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