Crisis At Christmas – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

j-and-m-and-jToday’s Gospel gives us some background for the Christmas feast that we need to take to heart. It speaks to us of a crisis at Christmas.

We tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the baby Jesus in the manger. It is not absolutely wrong to be sentimental, but we must also be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was, and about the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in making it come to pass.

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages: distress, direction, and decision.

  1. DISTRESS This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

The marriage is off. When we read that Mary was found to be with child before she and Joseph were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation was. Pregnancy in this circumstance  brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the continuation of the marriage permanently off.

Why is this? We read that Joseph was a “righteous man.” To our ears this like saying that he was a “good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpreted “righteous” here to refer to Joseph’s gracious character and virtue where he steps back from a sacred situation. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship includes the idea that it meant Joseph was also an “observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the Law prescribed. This explains his decision to divorce Mary because of her apparent lack of virginity prior to their coming together in the  marriage. Here is an example of the Mosaic Law in reference to such a matter:

But if the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 22:20-21).

While this seems quite extreme to us, we can also recognize how far we have gone in the other direction in modern times, making light of promiscuity. I doubt that anyone would argue that we should stone such a woman today, and rightly so, but this was the landscape in Joseph’s time.

What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the first century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or whether it was simply permitted (cf John 8). As a virtuous and patient man, Joseph looks for and senses some freedom in not “exposing” Mary to the full effects of the Law (stoning). But it does not seem he can find a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e., follower of the Law) he decides that divorce is required even if stoning is not.

This leads us to two important reflections, one about Mary and one about Joseph.

Mary – We can see into what a difficult and dangerous position her yes (her fiat) to the angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found with child outside the normal marital act with her husband. We know that it is by the Holy Spirit she conceives, but her family and Joseph and his family do not yet, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary explained exactly how she conceived, do you think you would accept such a story? Mary’s fiat placed her in real danger. It is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to His plans.

Joseph – We can also see the kind of pressure he would be under to do what the Law and custom required. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings at this point, but we can assume that when Mary was found to be with child prior to their being together in marriage, the social pressure on him to be legally freed from Mary were strong, regardless of his feeling or plans.

  1. DIRECTION Such was his intention [to divorce] when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Be not afraid. The principal exhortation of the angel was that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful because fear was a very big factor. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church believed that what the angel meant was that Joseph should not fear God’s wrath, since he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. Others think that the angel meant that Joseph should not fear taking God’s chosen instrument (Mary) as his wife.

One can also imagine some other fears that needed to be allayed by the angel. For example, Joseph could easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. The community could likewise shun him, and as a businessman, Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to ply his trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph “brings evil” into his house rather than purging the (apparent) evil from the midst of his house. But the angel directs him not to fear; this will take courageous faith.

The angel’s explanation is unusual to say the least. What does it mean to conceive by the Holy Spirit? It’s not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What about the others in the small town of Nazareth? Yes, people were more spiritual in those days, but it all seems so unusual!

Further, Joseph hears all this in a dream. We all know what dreams can be like. They can seem so real at the time, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph has to trust that what he was told is real, and that he should not be afraid because God has given him direction. As is often the case with things spiritual, we have to carefully discern and walk by faith, not by fleshly sight and certitude. Joseph has a decision to make.

  1. DECISION When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

We can see the strong faith of Joseph and the kind of trust he had to put in God. He had been told not to be afraid, to rebuke fear. Manfully, Joseph does this. He makes the decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information about how his family and others in the town reacted. However, the fact that the Holy family later settles back in Nazareth indicates that God did come through on His promise that Joseph need not be afraid.

Heroes of Faith! Recognize the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Their reputations were on the line, if not their very lives. They had great sacrifices to make in the wondrous incarnation of our Lord. Quite simply, Mary and Joseph are great heroes of the faith. For neither of them was their “yes” easy. It is often hard to obey God rather than men. Praise God that they made their decision and obeyed.

Mary and Joseph’s difficulties were not yet over. There was a badly timed census, which required a journey to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Imagine walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in such a condition! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt that riding a donkey in the ninth month of pregnancy is all that comfortable either. And then there was no room in the inn; Jesus had to be born in a smelly stable. Shortly thereafter they had to flee through the desert to Egypt because Herod sought to kill Jesus.

Jesus is found in a real Christmas, not a “Hallmark” one. The crisis of the first Christmas prefigures the passion. This where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may wish for the perfect Christmas, but there is no perfect Christmas. Jesus will find you where you are, in real life, in the imperfect Christmas, where loved ones have passed away and there is grief, where a job has been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor and there is stress, where families are experiencing strife. That’s where Jesus will be found, in your real Christmas. A Christmas of joy, yes, but also of imperfections, even crises. He is there waiting for you to find Him, in the real Christmas of your life.

This is an old African-American spiritual that reflects on the fact that true discipleship isn’t always easy. Joseph and Mary surely experience and exemplify what these words express.

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name

Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name

Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name

But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name

7 Replies to “Crisis At Christmas – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent”

  1. Msgr. Pope, I am usually very appreciative of your blog posts and liked your recent remarks about homily length. I find that brevity is particularly difficult when preaching in Spanish.

    I am however disappointed by your remarks on St. Joseph, though it is the fashion these days, supported by the problematic translation, to read Jewish marriage customs (written down only a couple of centuries later) into the Gospel language regarding Mary and Joseph, and following that reading, to take it for granted that Joseph’s doubt touched on Mary’s chastity. There is, however, a long tradition, going back at least to St. Jerome that St. Joseph doubted himself, not the Virgin.

    As for the language of ‘betrothal’, though to my knowledge they did not attend too carefully to this matter, it would be line with the likes of St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bernardine of Siena, and many others, to understand the word as being employe in order to remove doubt about Mary’s virginity and to speak about this unique virginal marriage in a comprehensible fashion.

    Our lectionary translation is a bit tendentious, as it reads ‘before they lived together’, when ‘before they came together’ would clearly be more accurate. Indeed, St. Jerome in defending the perpetual virginity of Mary against Helvidius, needed to explain that there is no implication that after the birth they ‘came together’.

    Later, it is a pure addition to speak of St. Joseph taking Mary ‘into his house’, as these words simply do not appear in the Greek. An accurate reading of the Angel’s words would be: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary, your wife, for what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Note that here Mary is already his wife.

    The key expression here is ‘son of David’, a messianic title, attributed not to Jesus, but to Joseph! As the angel reveals Mary to herself with the greeting “full of grace”, the angel reveals Joseph to himself with the greeting, “son of David”. He is the one who gives Jesus his name and passes on to him the messianic inheritance.

    He need not doubt himself, because as ‘son of David’ he belongs to this mystery.

    1. Not sure I understand your critique of me, you seem more concerned about the translation. I think the text seems clear enough to me to wit: Joseph at the first sought to divorce Mary since they were married though they had not yet come together. I think the text is clear. In my verbal homily I explained that they were more than “engaged,” they were married and that in the first year of marriage the wife still lived in her Father’s home and there were no sexual relations. Hence her pregnancy could not be by him. Your main concern seems rooted in the fact that I do not regard the long tradition by the fathers about the nature of Joseph’s doubt. Fair enough, but I am not sure that it should be an absolute norm that all interpretations close at the death of the last father. But to also be fair, my argument is not that Joseph doubted Mary, but rather, as a follower of the Law he decided to do what the Law required. Hence the angel instruct him not to be afraid to override those norms in this case whatever the consequences. Somewhere in the Church I wonder if we can find a little more room for varying interpretations as long as they do not supersede doctrine or the clear defined meaning of the text. But I am also aware that when this are offensive to pious ears, it’s pretty hard to get very far in any discussion. As for me, I think it’s possible that Joseph was anxious for any number of reasons and develop them.

      1. Msgr. Pope, my apologies, I was trying to be brief, while indicating my reasons for rejecting what has become the common reading of the text today. My criticism is directed precisely at this line: “This explains his decision to divorce Mary because of her apparent lack of virginity prior to their coming together in the marriage.” That would indicate that St. Joseph was at least unsure of the Virgin’s chastity. That is the premiss underlying your reasoning regarding his doing what the Law required.

        If we go by the law of Moses, if St. Joseph suspected the Virgin of adultery, he might not have been obliged to call for her stoning, but it seems he would have been obliged to expose her. As for divorce, the liberal school of Hillel allowed divorce for the most trivial reasons.

        When St. Joseph discovered the pregnancy of his wife, the Virgin, he was faced with a doubt and a decision that needed to be made. What the question he face, “What must I do with this faithless woman?” Or was it, “What course of action must I take in relation to this mysterious work of God.” While some Fathers of the Church affirmed the former, St. Jerome affirms the latter, as does St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Jerome’s line of thinking was taken up and developed by the growing devotion to St. Joseph since at least the time of St. Bernardine of Siena.

        Nevertheless, it has been rejected by the followers of the ‘low’ Christology that has become dominant since the latter half of the 20th century.

        St. John Paul II in “Redemptoris Custos” does not clearly address the question, but otherwise he presents a very elevated view of St. Joseph. He does write: “He did not know how to deal with Mary’s ‘astonishing’ motherhood. He certainly sought an answer to this unsettling question, but above all he sought a way out of what was for him a difficult situation.” (3) The expression “‘astonishing’ motherhood”, would seem more in line with St. Jerome.

        Since the Pope uses the Latin vulgate, the translation is not an issue, except in the vernacular versions of his Letter.

        Note that you respond to Mr. Landkamer that the Gospel is clear that they were married but were not yet living together. That is not at all clear, that is rather a matter of a tendentious translation.

  2. Msgr. Pope, I frequently read your articles and have high regard for them, but I cannot agree with a couple of points expressed in this article, those points being the “scandal” of Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s adverse reaction to that “scandal.”

    It seems as though the article assumes Mary and Joseph are not married at the time Joseph learns that she “is with child of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18), hence, the reason for the difficulties expressed in the article. There are two things I would like to note here. First, as is well known, Mary and Joseph were betrothed prior to the time of the Annunciation, as is stated explicitly in Luke 1:27. Second, Matthew himself implicitly states that betrothal is marriage, for in one and the same sentence (1:18-19) he says that Mary and Joseph are betrothed, and that Joseph is her husband. A footnote for Mt 1:18 in the “Ignatius Catholic Study Bible” states: “[betrothal] was a temporary period . . . between the covenant of marriage and the time when spouses lived together. . . . Because couples were legally married during this intervening phase, a betrothal could be terminated only by death or divorce.” In Deuteronomy 22:23 (RSV) we read that if “a man meets a [betrothed virgin] in the city and lies with her . . . [both shall be stoned] the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.” Commenting on the word “betrothal” in Lk 1:26, the “Oxford Bible Commentary” states: “Betrothal meant the entering into the legal contract of marriage though consummation did not normally occur until the time when, probably around a year later, the bride left her father’s house to join her husband’s.” Frank Sheed writes in “To Know Christ Jesus”: “If the marriage act did take place [during the time of betrothal] – which it rarely did in Galilee, more often in Judea – it was not sinful, and a child born of it was legitimate.” More could be said along these lines, but it seems clear from these references that the pregnancy of Mary would have been seen as unusual, but within the Law, and certainly not a scandal. The only person who could have been scandalized was Joseph.

    However there seems to be no reason to say that Joseph was scandalized. Mt 1:18 states: “Before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” Note that she was not simply “found to be with child.” Rather, she was found to be with child “of the Holy Spirit.” Who could have found her to be with child of the Holy Spirit? Assuming that the revelation Elizabeth received at the time of the Visitation (Lk 1:41-43) did not spread to Galilee before Mary returned home, her being with child of the Holy Spirit could only be known by Mary telling someone, and would not Joseph be the best candidate for hearing this news first? He seems to be our only candidate, for there is no mention in Scripture of anyone else in Galilee knowing of the situation. Saint Jerome comments on Mt 1:18 saying, “And found by none other than by Joseph, who knew all, as being her espoused husband.” Similarly, Basil of Caesarea writes: “Joseph found both things: both the conception and its cause, namely, the intervention of the Holy Spirit” (“On the Holy Generation of Christ”).

    Joseph had good reason to accept what Mary told him about her situation, for being a “just man” himself (Mt 1:19), he would have had some sense of the holiness of Mary. Of this, Sheed writes: “A saint of his greatness would have recognized a saint of her uniqueness” (“To Know Christ Jesus”). Also, he had surely heard in the Scriptures that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). The fact that these things were taking place without any revelation having been given to him would give him reason to think that perhaps his duty was to step aside so as not to be in the way of God’s plan of salvation. An angel clarified the situation for him by confirming what he had heard from Mary: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20). Thus, we have an interesting revelation/confirmation parallel between the annunciation to Mary and the annunciation to Joseph. Mary receives a revelation from an angel that is later confirmed by a woman (Elizabeth), and Joseph receives a revelation from a woman (Mary) that is later confirmed by an angel.

    1. The gospel is very clear that they are married but it was before they loved together. This is why Joseph’s first thought is to divorce her quietly before receiving other instructions from God through the angel. The article and the gospel are clear on this point. The text presumes Joseph did not know she had conceived by the Holy Spirit and this is why he chose to divorce her as the law directed. On AFTER the angel instructs him of the source Mary’s pregnancy is he aware of this fact. Any plain reading of the text shows this. I have heard other theories of why Joesph was afraid and I respect them, but they are not the only way to understand such texts. Sheed’s reading is rooted in a piety that cannot bear a less than tender reason. But, the Jewish Law was clear in such matters and there is (was) a piety in observing that too. As most readers know, I tend to favor the plain reading of the text over explanatory ideas to protect ideas that our saints every had any doubts or struggled in a human way. The bottom line is the same, Joseph did what was right, and at a high risk given the rules of those days.

  3. This note found in church after a young persons service the previous evening..about eight years ago.
    A letter from Jesus.
    My dear sweet child, be still and know that I am real. I love you. Right now, I am helping you. I know how much you are hurting but I am with you now, more than ever. At times you doubt this help and feel overwhelmed by your problems. I want you to know today, that they are not your problems, they are mine. Be still and know that I will solve them for you. I love you my precious one and will never abandon you. I am with you now by your side as you read these words and will remain there forever. I am with you tonight as you lay down your sweet head. I am with you in the night whenever you doubt and I will be with you arise in the morning. Today, choose to rejoice. Not because you have adversity, not because of your difficulties, but because I am so much bigger and stronger than anything that could come against you.

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