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Advent 4 (A)
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Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Cycle A

 
 1. Isaiah 7, 10-14
  • How should I read these readings?  What additional light can I possibly shed on them?  Our church uses them as proof texts for a core doctrine of our faith.  And so we have heard and overheard them countless times.  They also form the introduction to the Christmas saga that we all learned from our mothers' breast.
  • I must stop, and listen carefully to find out what these readings had to say to their first listeners.  The prophet first spoke to a king and his court, and later his words were celebrated by all the people of Judah.
  • Ask for a sign.  God is constantly giving and wants to give even more.  We look for solutions to our needs here on earth, and too often forget to look in the most obvious place.
  • I will not ask!  I don't hear exasperation in this answer, but rather condescension, such as those practitioners of realpolitik in government who ask how many columns the pope has.  Like the king, we tend to reject the gift.  We have worked it out already on our level.
  • There is more than a formal exchange going on here.  Prophet and king are wrestling to gain the advantage and dictate the terms of their meeting.  The one who speaks last will be the winner.  And since this is scripture, we know who that will be.
  • The virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  Pregnancy and childbirth are common enough events, and for that reason not so impressive.  It is the name "Immanuel" that counts, and I should make it fill the sanctuary and echo through the Christmas season.
  • Climax: The Lord himself will give you this sign.
  • Message for our assembly: Is God absent from our world?  Or can we look for signs in the everyday wonders around us?
  • I will challenge myself: To bring out the tension in this meeting, and show that God does not depart easily from the scene without having the desired impact.
2. Romans 1, 1-7
  • The apostle is saluting a church that he did not found.  That may be the reason for his much more detailed confession of faith, to prove to them that he and they are all on the same page.
  • It is an early confession, void of the technical language that councils used later to make our faith more precise.  It tells about Jesus Christ our Lord, not just about the man Jesus but about a wonderful work of God, where he is established as Son of God through resurrection from the dead.
  • And not just about Jesus in isolation.  He is Son of God in power, that same power of the Spirit that prompted Christians to acknowledge him through the centuries.
  • I can't help noticing that the apostle begins, as everyone of his time began, with the earthly Jesus, descended from David according to the flesh.  They first saw the man and were led to God through him.  Once people were scandalized to think that God could be fully revealed in that man; later the church spoke of God's incarnation, as if we could know the mind of the Lord.
  • Promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures.  Well, isn't that what I have been reading all this month?  Let me remember that our faith was born and matured from the visions of these suffering men and women of Israel.
  • Obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also.  Indeed, our entire assembly is included in this sentence.  The apostle looked ahead to us.  I will look upon the people as I read.
  • Climax: Grace to you and peace.  They are the Greek (charis) and Hebrew (shalom) greetings.  No one is left out.
  •  The message for our assembly: We are all called to belong to Jesus Christ, called to be holy.  The Constitution on the Church from Vatican II made that very clear.
  • I will challenge myself: To recover the witnessing spirit of the apostle.
Gospel.  Matthew 1, 18-24
 
  • In contrast to the prophecy reading, I hear now a good news message given to just one person, Joseph, a humble craftsman in a crossroads town far from Judea.
  • Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  The evangelist did not say "Jesus of Nazareth."  That's a curious detail, and I can emphasize the name.
  • Mary was found with child (through the Holy Spirit).  It's a misleading sentence, since Joseph clearly did not think this and probably the rest of Nazareth did not either.  Mary does not announce to her family her blessings, at least according to Matthew.  No, this is an unpleasant surprise.
  • There are two planes of work in this passage, as with all events of salvation history and of our own histories.  One cannot explain itself without help from the other.  Who among us understands what God intends for us?  And our faith tells us that God has called each of us for a special purpose.
  • Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  Again, I notice that the angel has taken over the text.  The angel does not say, "Do not cast her away," which is what Joseph intended to do.  God has joined Mary and Joseph together, and together they will stay.  There might be a subtext, as there was in the garden of Eden: "Joseph, aren't you going to take her in?"
  • In the case of Jesus, He will save his people from their sins.  Just because it was a common name for Jewish boys doesn't mean it couldn't have symbolic status. 
  • So there is more than just another baby boy here.  God is going to liberate the people again.
  • Climax: God is with us.
  • Message for our assembly: What purpose does God have for us?  Do we care?
  • I will challenge myself: To betray in my voice the happiness I feel, that God has shown us such faithfulness in this gift of a child.
From Word to Eucharist: Little hidden things define our faith.  We may discover it in the eyes of those who join us in the procession.  Faith seeks understanding, of course, but it begins and ends in wonder.

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