Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year A
Matthew 1:18-24


Joseph, a man who lives on what is essential

In this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the Gospel (cf. Mt 1: 18-24) guides us towards Christmas through the experience of Saint Joseph, a figure seemingly in second place, but whose attitude encapsulates all Christian wisdom. He, together with John the Baptist and Mary, is one of the characters whom the liturgy proposes to us for the time of Advent; and of the three he is the most modest. He is one who does not preach, does not speak, but tries to do God’s will; and he does it in the style of the Gospel and the Beatitudes. Let us think of: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5: 3). And Joseph is poor because he lives on what is essential, he works, he lives by his work; it is the poverty typical of those who are aware that they depend on God for everything, and place all their trust in Him.

Today’s Gospel passage presents a situation that is in human terms embarrassing and conflicting. Joseph and Mary are betrothed; they do not yet live together, but she is expecting a child by the work of God. Joseph, faced with this surprise, is naturally disturbed but, instead of reacting in an impulsive and punitive manner – as was the custom, the law protected him – he seeks a solution that respects the dignity and integrity of his beloved Mary. The Gospel says so: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (v. 19). Joseph knew that if he denounced his betrothed, he would expose her to serious consequences, even death. He had full faith in Mary, whom he chose as his bride. He does not understand, but he seeks another solution.

This inexplicable circumstance leads him to question their bond; therefore, with great suffering, he decides to detach himself from Mary without creating scandal. But the Angel of the Lord intervenes to tell him that the solution he proposes is not the one desired by God. On the contrary, the Lord opened a new path for him, a path of union, love and happiness, and said to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife. For that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20).

At this point, Joseph trusts God totally, obeys the Angel’s words and takes Mary with him. It was precisely this unshakable trust in God that enabled him to accept a humanly difficult and, in a certain sense, incomprehensible situation. Joseph understands, in faith, that the child born in Mary’s womb is not his child, but the Son of God, and he, Joseph, will be its guardian, fully assuming its earthly paternity. The example of this gentle and wise man exhorts us to lift up our gaze and push it further. It is a question of recovering the surprising logic of God which, far from small or great calculations, is made up of openness towards new horizons, towards Christ and His Word.

May the Virgin Mary and her chaste husband Joseph help us to listen to Jesus Who comes, and Who asks to be welcomed in our plans and in our choices.

Pope Francis
Angelus 22 December 201

Jesus, the God with us 

“Here’s how the birth of Jesus happened” thus today’s gospel’s passage begins. Instead of talking about the birth, it tells the announcement of the virginal motherhood of his wife to Joseph. Luke, unlike Matthew, narrates the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary and only marginally mentions Joseph.

The temptation to merge the two stories, as if they were reports of two journalists, is great but dangerous. It inevitably places us before difficult questions if not impossible to give an answer, as we will see shortly.

Both Luke and Matthew refer to actual facts, although difficult to define in details. They do not write pages of news but theology. They present Jesus, after Easter and in the light of the Spirit, as the Christian communities came to know him at the end of the first century.

Let’s see how Matthew structures his story and what message he wants to give.
At the time of Jesus, a marriage took place in two stages. The first consisted of a stipulated contract between the couple in front of their parents and two witnesses. After this signing, the boy and the girl were husband and wife, but did not live together. They spent a year apart during which they could not meet.

This interval allowed the two families to get to know each other and for the newlyweds to mature. In fact, they married very young, twelve or thirteen years for the girl, fifteen or sixteen for the boy. This was to be the age of Mary and Joseph.

After a year of waiting, a party would be organized. The bride would be conducted to the house of her husband and the two begin their life together.

It was during this interval that the annunciation to Mary and her pregnancy through the Holy Spirit took place. Matthew emphasizes this fact from the beginning of his story to avoid insinuating that Jesus may have been generated by the intervention of a man.

The spirit, in this story, does not represent the male element. Ruah (spirit in Hebrew is female) indicates a strength, a divine breath of the Creator. “When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and the face of the earth is renewed,” says the Psalmist (Ps 104:30). He probably thinks of the spirit of God that hovered over the waters at the beginning of the world (Gn 1:2).

The virginal conception that is even explicitly mentioned by Luke (Lk 1:26-39) is not intended to emphasize the moral superiority of Mary nor, still less, does it constitute a depreciation of sexuality. It is introduced to reveal a fundamental truth for the believer: Jesus is not only a man; he is from above and is the same Lord who has taken on human form. To help us understand this truth, Matthew and Luke harmoniously agree that God resorted to a creative act.

What happened next is not easy to establish and raises several questions. It seems incredible that Joseph, despite his righteousness, thought of taking drastic action against Mary, without even consulting her. How could he suspect that she had been unfaithful to him? In what sense was Joseph just? Was it because he wanted to separate himself from Mary? There was no law obliging divorce from an unfaithful wife. It would not have been a nice gesture on the part of Joseph even if it was done in secret. Why didn’t Mary say anything to Joseph about the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement? Or, if she had told him, why didn’t Joseph believe her?

Some say that Mary must have told Joseph that the child she was expecting was the Son of God. She had no reason to keep this secret from him and he had a right to know. Joseph’s doubt would then be not about the fidelity or infidelity of his spouse, but about his role in the situation. How could he give a name to a son who was not his? Would it not be interfering with God’s plan? Not knowing what to do, he decided to wait for God to make His will known.

While he was pondering these things, the Lord revealed His plan and the mission to which He called Joseph. He was to give Mary’s son the name, Jesus, thus becoming rightfully a member of his family. He would become a descendant of David according to the flesh, as St. Paul said in the second reading.

This explanation is interesting and contains elements certainly acceptable. For example, the fact that Joseph is called just because he had decided to step aside so as not to interpose obstacles to God’s plan that he could not understand. However, it is limited to be an assumption to which the Gospel text gives only a fragile foundation.

It is better not to grope for answers in the gospel to questions we legitimately ask ourselves. Because Matthew was not interested in satisfying our curiosity. All he wanted us to understand was this: the son of Mary is the promised heir to the throne of David announced by the prophets.

The conclusion of the story is solemn. The whole passage seems to have been written to prove the fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son who will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us (vv. 22-23).

We have already seen the literal meaning of this prophecy: the announcement of the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah. He was truly an Emmanuel, i.e. a sign that God protected his people and the dynasty of David, but did not answer all the expectations that had been placed in him. He did not even realize the promises of happiness, prosperity and peace described by Isaiah. He was not a wonderful counselor, an invincible warrior, an everlasting father, a prince of peace… (Is 9:5-6).

Here is what Matthew means: Jesus is the one who has fulfilled these prophecies. He is the son of the virgin announced by the prophet. He is really the Emmanuel, God with us. He will be given an everlasting kingdom, and he will fulfill all the hopes of Israel.

We are at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. The theme of Emmanuel also returns at the end of the book. In the last chapter it is said that, after the resurrection, Jesus manifested himself to the disciples on the Mount of Galilee. He sent them into the whole world to make disciples of all nations. Behold, I am with you (… Here I am the Emmanuel) always even to the end of this world (Mt 28:20). The reference to ‘God with us’ opens and closes all the work of Matthew because—the evangelist tells us—in Jesus, God has placed Himself, and remains always at man’s side.

This conclusion of the song returns to the theme of the virgin. We explained the meaning of the virginal conception of Mary. We want to recall other biblical implications of this term.

For us, ‘virgin’ means admirable, worthy of esteem. In the Bible, however, it has a different meaning. The virginity of a woman was appreciated before the wedding, but one who remained a virgin throughout her life showed only the inability to attract upon herself the look of a man. A married woman who had children is worthy of praise. The virgin was considered a tree without fruits, deserving pity (Is 56:3-6).

This term is often used figuratively in the Bible to indicate a despicable condition. The expression virgin Zion does not mean: pure, immaculate, spotless, but poor, Jerusalem devoid of life (Jer 31:4; 14:13). The land of Israel destroyed by the Assyrians is compared by Amos to a virgin who could not fulfill her dream of being a mother. “Virgin Israel is fallen, never to rise again! With none to help her up, abandoned, she lies upon her own land.” (Am 5:2). Even the bloody Babylon is cursed by the prophet: “You will be reduced to dust, O virgin Babylon” (Is 47:1).

And Mary? She speaks of herself as if she were the “virgin Zion” despised and worthless (He looked upon his servant in her lowliness) and recognizes that everything that happened to her is the work of the “Powerful” who has done great things in her (Lk 1:48-49). The Virgin Mary is the proof of the greatness and power of God, who alone is able to bring life to the barren womb.

When we celebrate the virginity of Mary, we rejoice because we verify in her what the Lord can do with virgins, with those who have no value, with those who offer him only one’s poverty and simplicity. From Mary, the Lord has drawn a masterpiece. An artist like him can do only masterpieces, regardless of the smallness and poverty of the material at his disposal. Every person is destined to become a masterpiece.

In this time of Advent, the Virgin Mary invites us to contemplate what the Lord has done for her and believe in the victory of life even where only signs of death are seen.

The term virgin in the Bible also assumes a more metaphorical meaning: the person who loves with an undivided heart. The unfaithfulness of Israel is likened to prostitution (Jer 5:7). Its contamination with idols is considered adultery, a division of the heart between the Lord, the one husband, and the idols of the nations, her lovers (Hos 2).

The virginity is the symbol of total love for the Lord. It is in this sense that Paul uses the term when he writes to the Corinthians: “I share the jealousy of God for you, for I have promised you in marriage to Christ, as the only spouse, to present you to Him as a pure virgin” (2 Cor 11:2).

Mary has certainly realized to perfection even this ideal of virginity. For every Christian, she is the supreme model of total and undivided love to God.

Fernando Armellini
Italian missionary and biblical scholar