As the saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn, but the dawn also represents the light growing brighter and brighter. This Sunday the light of the Advent wreath is full because we are close to the dawn of our salvation: the birth of Our Lord. God will soon visibly be with us after nine months in his mother’s womb. In today’s readings we see how people welcome the news, for good or ill, and we can ask ourselves how we receive the news.
In today’s First Reading Isaiah makes a prophecy that a a virgin will conceive and bear a son named Emmanuel (“God is with us”). The Lord asked King Ahaz through Isaiah to ask for a sign, and Ahaz disobeyed: he obviously didn’t believe the Lord was speaking through Isaiah, or maybe he didn’t want to listen to the Lord at all. The Lord communicates at times whether you want him to or not: in this case, he prophesied the birth of the Messiah. Ahaz was already not listening well to the Lord, so the prophecy didn’t mean much to him, but it meant a lot to us. Eventually things did not work out well for Ahaz, but things worked out great for us: the Lord was born.
In today’s Second Reading Paul reminds us that the prophets promised the Gospel that we would receive from Our Lord, along with the mission to share that Gospel with everyone. In Advent we remember the Word of God is not just a message. He is a Person, the Son of God. We’re preparing to receive Our Lord in less than a week, but we are also called to share that news with others. The Word is coming in Person to put something into action: the work of redemption and our mission as apostles to put that Word into action for the benefit of others as well.
Matthew in today’s Gospel shows the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus, but also the source of Joseph’s confusion and dilemma: Mary’s fidelity to the marriage agreement their families had already made was called into question. Joseph knew he was not Jesus’ biological father, and that apparently meant adultery on Mary’s part, calling for action to be taken. The Law was clear on how adulteresses should be treated, but somehow Joseph knew in his heart that he should not expose Mary to the cold brutality that the Law prescribed (adulteresses were shunned and even stoned). He had a dilemma in his heart, and he felt obliged to opt for the Law, but in the most compassionate manner possible: a parting of ways with Mary through a quiet divorce.
The Lord resorted to a channel of communication that hearkened back to the age of the Patriarchs: a dream. Joseph had already intuited in his heart that the raw Law was not the answer, but he hadn’t felt he could go beyond it, just temper it with forgiveness and compassion. In the dream the angel communicated to him that the Holy Spirit was responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and that Jesus would be the Messiah. Joseph obeyed and welcomed not only Mary and Jesus into his home, but into the House of David.
If it seems sometimes that God has to resort to a back channel to communicate with us, to lower our resistance in order to speak to us, we must remember that the most fundamental means of communication is love. Love doesn’t discard justice; rather, it tempers it and permits space for mercy and compassion. When we don’t understand what Our Lord is asking from us, or why he may have permitted a troubling situation, let’s strive to respond with the same fairness and compassion as St. Joseph. The Lord will make sure his message gets through to us somehow.
If Our Lord did not temper his justice with love, he would have left us forever in the darkness of our sins. It was love that made him become flesh and dwell among us to redeem us from our sins and bring joy back to hopeless lives. Sometimes we can be so “fair” that we end up being harsh. With the quiet gentleness of a newborn baby the Lord is about to teach us at Christmas that mercy shows love is greater than justice. If you to dispense any justice this week, make an extra effort to temper it with love. It’ll make you more merciful.
Readings: Isaiah 7:10–14; Psalm 24:1–6; Romans 1:1–7; Matthew 1:18–24. See also 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary, Advent, December 18th, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.