Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
The Sunday Mass Readings for Advent seem to shift perspective. We began with our eye on eternity, specifically, final judgment. That seems to continue through the Second Sunday with this difference: the voice of John the Baptist, speaking in historical time, warns us of future judgment but we are not directed to Christ coming at the end of time. Last Sunday, the focus remained on John, now imprisoned but addressing Jesus through John’s disciples.
What about today? Is today’s Gospel the prequel of the story of John and Jesus? Is this all leading up to the anniversary of the birth of Jesus? One could say that but, I believe, that wouldn’t be saying enough.
Today’s Gospel is a familiar story and we know everything turns out all right; but we only know that by hindsight. What was it like for Joseph and Mary? What does Joseph feel? Mary would not seem to be what he had thought. Clearly she has explained nothing to him–and had she tried, how could he believe her story? What must Mary feel? She trusted God and now Joseph is withdrawing and she can well understand why! How can any of this ever be resolved? They must have felt as if it were the end of the world. That, by the way, brings us back to the First Sunday of Advent.
Although this Gospel is firmly in historical time, it is the end of the world for both Joseph and Mary. Their lives will never be the same again. They have arrived at a judgment.
I’ve known such moments–perhaps you have, too! I mean those moments when I’m stuck in a dead end, every escape closed and out of my control, no help in sight. The anxiety is intense and I feel, justly or unjustly, accused, arraigned and sentenced. I begin to rummage through my memory to recall how many wrong turns brought me to such a point. I might even feel that I deserved the mes I’m in. Does that sound familiar?
What we witness in today’s Gospel is God judging his people, judging–and how unthinkable this is in a sanitized version of the Gospel–Joseph and Mary. And what is God’s sentence? Mercy; mercy so alive and personal that it is the Spirit-filled child in Mary’s womb. Mercy so full and true that it is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Such a judgment proves the mettle of Joseph and Mary and we arrive at that human point where eternity and time cross. That’s not unlike the mysteries we celebrate at this altar; that is not unlike the full potential of our quirky humanity.
To celebrate the birth of Jesus is not to celebrate a past event, over and done with. Isn’t it celebrating eternity daily breaking into time? Isn’t it celebrating our call from God to surpass the confines of time and humanity? Isn’t it celebrating that God “sentences” us to the grace of merciful repentance now and, as St. Paul puts it, a burden of glory though eternity? Isn’t it celebrating what we were created to be, the humanity we were created to live but can’t on our own?