December 18, 206
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
The passage that we have heard is found at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, immediately after the genealogy that opens the account (Mt 1:17-24).
Matthew wants to right away define Jesus’ identity and by doing so indicates his origin. The genealogy clearly states that Jesus is deeply immersed in the history of his people and represents its pinnacle. But, today’s account, which speaks of his birth, inserts into this story a completely new, vertical element. In a few verses, Matthew twice repeats that what is begotten in the Virgin Mary “is by the Holy Spirit” (1:18,20).
To confirm this we find an important expression, which speaks of this intervention of God in history. In verse 18, Matthew says that Mary “before they came together, was found with child…”. Jesus “happens”, enters into history before the man can claim paternity to himself. He is from eternity, is a work of the Father. He is before; he is in the beginning…
The divine origin of Jesus highlighted in the Gospel will later become the source of that authority which the evangelist repeatedly reports (cf. 7:29), and will often be contested by his adversaries (21,23). This same authority will later pass to the Church, at the moment when the Risen Lord will leave them to return to the Father (Mt. 28:17ff).
But the passage also leads us to understand in this way what Jesus gives us, what he has brought to us, to share with us, what he inserted again in the long history of the generations: he brought his sonship relationship with the Father, he has grafted his own divinity into history.
The Liturgy presents this passage, today, by now almost at the end of our Advent journey, to help us see how the eternal comes into direct contact with human life, with our life. And to do that, it makes us enter into that moment of the history of a man, Joseph, who is called to “take to himself” (1:20) the mystery of God made flesh in the life of his spouse.
We pause on two elements of this story: on the justice of Joseph and his dreams. Two elements that would seem unlikely to go together.
It is said of Joseph that he was a just man (1:19), but his justice was a bit special. In fact, finding himself in front of his pregnant betrothed he would have had to expose her to stoning: that would have been justice according to the Mosaic Law (cf. Dt. 22:20-21). Instead, Joseph does not do it. And yet, according to Matthew, Joseph is just.
To understand what the evangelist means it’s necessary to peruse the Gospel of Matthew. Hence, we become aware that this term (just/justice) is very valuable for the first Gospel, to the point that it occurs more than 20 times.
But the justice of Matthew, that is that of the kingdom of heaven, is not a simple human justice, not a simple retribution. It is the superior justice (5:20), that of the sermon on the mount, that of the Father who makes it rain on the just and unjust (5:45); that which puts the person and not the law at the center.
Joseph is just by this justice.
The evangelist Matthew greatly emphasizes this characteristic of Joseph; he seems to say that this kind of justice really makes it possible for Joseph to open himself to the Father’s will, which is always a will for salvation and life, never of death. It is the good and human justice of Joseph that makes him fit and ready to receive the abundant and surprising mystery of God.
And this step comes through a dream. Even dreams are important in the Gospel of Matthew. He recounts five of them. The one we have heard today; one that warns the Magi not to return to Herod (2:12); one that warns Joseph to flee to Egypt (2:13), and that (which is actually repeated two times) which warns him to return to Israel (2:20,22); and finally, the dream of Pilate’s wife (27:19), which she transmits to tell her husband to have nothing to do with that just man, because a dream about him that left her very upset.
Therefore, every dream is the step that helps to “save” Jesus from human injustice, and from death.
There, where the law would not be sufficient to open history to an abundance of love and the presence of God, the dream intervenes, namely that time span of human life that leaves the reins and control of history and opens itself to a greater will. It is open to welcome the presence of God in one’s life.
Joseph obeys the angel in everything and he accepts. Sure he does not understand everything that is happening. The law explains all. Love, however, does not explain, but enlightens.
Pilate, on the contrary, will not listen to the dream of his wife and will not save Jesus, the Just One.
But paradoxically even through this disobedience the Lord’s salvation will come, which then, in the offering of his life out of love, will truly fulfill the name and the mission that today Joseph is called to give this child that is not his: Jesus, Emmanuel. God saves, God is with us.
At the end of this Advent we are called to open ourselves to the “dream”, in that space of availability in our hearts to a greater will, one that goes beyond the norms of our reason, of our justice. A mere human justice, within the norms of our law, eventually becomes unjust, and is unable to understand and welcome the news of Jesus. It is not from our reason and our control that the Lord comes.
He comes in that available and open space in our life, perhaps more fragile and less sure of itself, but more free and poor. The Lord led John the Baptist there little by little, as we saw last Sunday, and Joseph today. And he leads each one of us there.