A reflection on the Sunday readings for December 18, 2022, the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
Next Sunday at this time, it will be Christmas. Today’s liturgy provides us with inspiration for our final week of Advent preparation. The stories and the characters in today’s Scripture readings are a great vantage point from which to approach the greatest story of all—the coming of the Lord. These biblical stories also have lessons for the stories of our own lives. Today, I would like to reflect on these stories and their protagonists as we discern our own parts to play in the story of human salvation.
Ahaz, the Skeptic
In the 8th century BC, the Assyrian Empire was a great regional power. Smaller kingdoms such as Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom) lived under the constant threat of being overpowered by the Assyrians. Damascus (Syria) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, also known as the Ephraimite kingdom, invited Judah led by Ahaz, to form an alliance against the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser III. This was called the Syro-Ephraimite Alliance.
Considering this threat, Isaiah counseled Ahaz to trust in God rather than make an alliance with either side. Ahaz hesitated. He was afraid that the Assyrians would prevail. It is in this context that Isaiah told him to ask for a sign to confirm if his prophecy is true (Is 7:11). Ahaz refused, saying that he will not test God.
Instead, Ahaz did something truly abhorrent. He allied with the Assyrians. The Assyrians decimated the Syro-Ephraimite Alliance. Israel was destroyed and Judah survived. Ahaz may have been relieved of his enemies, but there was a price to be paid. Ahaz had to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III with treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem and the royal treasury. He also had to build idols of Assyrian gods in Judah to find favor with his new overlord. Isaiah has warned Ahaz against such a possibility.
Isaiah had tried to persuade Ahaz to even ask for a sign from God as an assurance of God’s fidelity. Ahaz refused – not because he did want to tempt the Lord, but because the alliance with a powerful emperor seemed more trustworthy for Ahaz. He could simply not get himself to trust in God’s fidelity and power. Even though Ahaz was not faithful, God promised him that God would be faithful. Hence, the prophecy, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” (Is 7:14).
My purpose in retelling this story is not to judge or condemn Ahaz. Let history judge him and may God be merciful to him. My concern is another. Each day, living our lives in our interaction with the realities of the world, we are writing a story. In small things and big, we too make alliances and decisions. In these alliances and decisions, God is constantly calling us to fidelity, justice, holiness, and peace. At the end of our lives, whether our story reads like that of Ahaz is up to us.
Joseph, the Righteous Man
The hero of the story in today’s gospel reading is Joseph. His story reads differently than that of Ahaz. Joseph’s fiancée, Mary, was found with child. He did not father this child. Jewish Law and pure commonsense told him to divorce Mary since her pregnancy violated the laws of matrimony. This was true not only in Jewish legal system but would be scandalous even by our standards today. Although for a different reason, Joseph found himself in as much of a conundrum as Ahaz. Just like Isaiah directed Ahaz, an angel directed Joseph.
And herein lies the key difference. Joseph responded to the angel’s message very differently than Ahaz did. Joseph heard. He believed that this child within her womb was from the Holy Spirit and that this child was “Emmanuel.” Somehow, unlike Ahaz, he had developed an ability to trust God unconditionally. As the gospel tells us at the end, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt 1:24).
When I look at my own life, I realize that Ahaz and Joseph coexist in me. And perhaps this is true of every one of us. There are times when we respond like Ahaz and then at other times, we may surprise ourselves as we respond like Joseph. Advent is about turning the Ahaz in us into Joseph. Advent is about letting the story of our lives read more and more like Joseph’s story than the story of Ahaz. And like Joseph, because our lives are open to God’s presence, may “Emmanuel” find room in our lives.
Mary, the Handmaid of the Lord
The third person in the readings today is Mary. However, I would like to approach Mary’s story from the perspective of Paul’s words in today’s second reading. Paul calls himself a “slave of Christ Jesus” (Rom 1:1). To make this declaration at a time when slavery was still in practice is rather shocking. Slavery is radically undesirable. It robs people of their dignity and freedom. Yet, Paul calls himself a slave. He freely surrenders his freedom.
Mary’s response to the angel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word” is very similar to Paul’s demeanor. By describing herself as the handmaid of the Lord, Mary allowed God to have total control of her freedom, her will, and her life. Mary is radically and unconditionally available to accomplish God’s plan for human redemption.
But there is a twist in the story. Mary’s story takes us back to Ahaz. The sign God promised to Ahaz that “a virgin shall conceive and bear and son” is now fulfilled in a totally new and unfathomable way. That prophecy is now fulfilled not merely for Judah but for all humanity. Mary and Joseph cooperate with God to write the greatest story ever written – the story of human redemption. And what a great story their story is!
Salvation history continues. The story of human redemption continues to be written. Ahaz, Joseph, Paul, and Mary have lessons to teach us. You and I are also protagonists of the story. We, too, have a part to play. We, too, have things to accomplish. We, too, have a story to write. May the story of our lives be like that of Mary and Joseph. May Jesus be at the center and focus of our story.
The Eucharist is a great way to bring our story to Jesus. Communion tells us that two lives, two stories become one. Let us pray that in this Sunday’s Eucharist we can make an honest attempt to let our story converge with the story of Jesus. “May it be done according to your word.” Amen.
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.