4th Sunday of Advent, 18 Dec 2016

From the Dean’s Desk

The Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-96) wrote in his poem ‘To a Mouse’ that “the best laid plans of mice and men can often go awry”. This is often the case with life. We can plan to the smallest detail many of our projects and ventures only to find that some unforeseen element has undone all of our plans. Our meticulous planning for a dinner party can all come to nothing when illness occurs and the event has to be either cancelled or postponed. In the end we cannot determine or control the outcome of our planning. With the celebration today of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are presented with the events leading up to the Christmas story: ‘This is how Jesus Christ came to be born’ Matthew tells us [Matthew 1:18]. We move into the lives of Mary and Joseph as the plans that they have for each other seemingly collide with what God has in mind for them.

Today’s Gospel story [Matthew 1: 18-24] tells us of the prophecy of Jesus’ birth and the effect that it had on Mary and Joseph. When we sit with this story we see these two young people, Joseph and Mary are at the beginning of their life together. Matthew tells us that they are betrothed. In Palestine couples who are betrothed to each other were in a similar case to couples who today are engaged to be married, only there was a more binding element to it. Matthew tells us of the beginnings of a series of surprises that will enter the lives of Joseph and Mary. It is discovered that Mary is with child. Being betrothed this indiscretion would require a process of formal divorce on the part of the male, therefore bringing the issue into the full public spectrum and causing an amount of grievance and shame to both families, but especially the woman.

As Joseph prepares for this process to be initiated, we hear of the beginning of the second surprising factor. In a dream – one of many to come – an angel informs Joseph that he need not fear this surprising situation, because Mary has conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. The angel goes on to state that this Child – to be named Jesus – will indeed be the saviour of his people. Joseph awakens from the dream with a different perspective. He does as the angel commands him and takes Mary as his wife, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel’ which comes from the conclusion of our first reading today [Isaiah 7:14].

This is the first part of the familiar Christmas story. In the same way in which it began it also continues – the mysterious and often surprising ways in which God comes into the lives of Mary and Joseph. The important point to all this is in the names that appear within this text. We have heard that the angel commanded Joseph to name the Child Jesus, since he will be the saviour of his people. As we hear from the prophet Isaiah – whose words become fulfilled in the birth of Jesus – the Child’s name will be Emmanuel – a word which means “God is with us’. The central point of this reading comes at the end: When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do…[Matthew 1:24]. This highlights the importance and centrality of working with God’s will above and beyond our own. It entails a sense of discernment that allows us to be open to, recognise and work with God’s plans for us, even when, like Joseph and Mary we may not fully understand where those plans will take us.

The challenge as we hear today’s Gospel is for us to have the same openness and trust in the ways of God as did Joseph and Mary, most especially in those moments when we cannot really understand the ways of God and where God is trying to lead us. Joseph and Mary’s initial response to these surprising elements in their life would have been one of surprise, doubt and possibly fear. Through the words of the angel they come to a point where they were able to work with God’s design for them. So too with ourselves. We need to be open to God’s word, able to discern his will and have the faith and trust to place our confidence in his ways. In doing this, then the miracle of Christmas continues to happen in our world.

Fr Robert Bossini, Dean and Parish Priest