Father Donald Senior, CP

Pray for the gift of the Spirit to see God’s presence clearly

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Dec. 18: Fourth Sunday of Advent
Is 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24

Some with long memories might recall the lovely words of a song from “Godspell,” a musical that first appeared in 1971:

“Day by day, day by day; O, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Those words and melody popped into my mind while I was reflecting on the readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Gospel passage is from Matthew’s infancy narrative and anticipates the Christmas story itself. Matthew tells the familiar story in his unique way.

Unlike Luke’s brighter and more joyful account, which we will hear at two of the Christmas Masses, Matthew strikes a more somber tone. Instead of angels appearing to the shepherds with the good news of Jesus’ birth, we hear of Joseph’s distress when he learns that Mary, his beloved future wife, is pregnant.

Mary and Joseph were, no doubt, in an arranged marriage that was not yet consummated. Like any normal person, now or then, Joseph thinks the worst — that Mary has been unfaithful to him. The customs of the time allowed a man who has been so shamed to expose Mary to public ridicule and even severe punishment. (We even hear of such “honor killings” in parts of the world today.).

But, Matthew’s Gospel notes, Joseph was a “just” man — a virtue prized in this Gospel and one that suggests Joseph was compassionate and good even in the midst of his wrenching sorrow and disappointment. He decides not to publicize Mary’s supposed infidelity but to “divorce her quietly.”

It is at this moment that an “angel of the Lord” appears to Joseph and reveals what is truly happening here: Mary has conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit and Joseph should not be afraid to take her into his home as his wife. Dreams play a big part in Matthew’s account and we are reminded of another Joseph in the Old Testament who was also a “dreamer.” (The Evangelist Matthew loves to evoke Old Testament memories as he recounts the story of Jesus.)

Through his Spirit-inspired dream Joseph is given the grace of seeing reality in a deeper way. What appeared on the surface to be a source of consternation and doubt, is, in fact, a marvel of God’s grace.

The child that Mary bears is to be named Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. He is also to be called “Emmanuel,” that is, “God-with-us” — a marvelous name inspired by the prophecy of Isaiah in the first reading today and found only in Matthew’s account.

In the Gospel narrative that unfolds, Jesus will be an exceptional teacher and healer and will give his life that others can live. In this, he is truly “Emmanuel,” the embodiment of the divine presence.

At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel (28:20), the Risen Christ tells his disciples on the mountaintop in Galilee: “I will be with you always, until the end of time.” The reassurance of God’s presence in Jesus that begins Matthew’s Gospel is also its final promise.

It is beautiful, I think, that Matthew’s Gospel begins in this way. This is where the words of the song from “Godspell” came to my mind. Joseph’s initial experience reminds us that sometimes it is very difficult to find God’s grace in the midst of our lives, especially when we may be suffering and confused.

This is part of the message of Advent — we search and hope for God’s coming into our lives, and we will not be disappointed. So it makes sense on this final Sunday of Advent that we should earnestly pray for the gift of the Spirit that will enable us to see God’s loving and forgiving presence “more clearly” so that we might “love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly.”


  • scripture