4th Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2016
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
These last four Sundays we’ve lit a candle
to count down the passing of the Advent season,
each candle reminding us that the celebration
of the birth of the Savior of the world
was coming that much closer.
Today, we enter the final week of preparation before the celebration begins.
It’s a celebration we mark spiritually by recalling
the events of that wondrous night when the world was changed forever.
We place ourselves in the presence of the stable and the manger.
We have pictures all around us of the star shining over Bethlehem,
the 3 kings and the shepherds,
the herds of sheep and the choirs of angels.
But in order to prepare ourselves in these last few days,
one thing remains left to do, and today’s Gospel does it:
we need to place ourselves in the presence of the 2 people
who understand what it means to prepare for the birth of Jesus
better than any one:
the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.
Not much is known about the early life of the Blessed Mother.
Scripture is silent about her childhood,
as are most of the early fathers of the Church.
Even so, Scripture and all the Fathers are unanimous
in their deep reverence and love for her,
and her unique grace and status in creation
is explicitly extolled from the earliest days.
And not all of the Fathers are silent about her childhood.
Those who wrote about her maintain that she knew from a very early age
that God had a special mission for her in life.
Think about it: the Church teaches infallibly that
she was conceived in the womb of her mother
without the stain of original sin,
which means she never suffered from concupiscence:
she could see very clearly the difference between
the good and evil around her;
and she never once committed a personal sin.
This is, in part, what the angel Gabriel meant when he said to her:
“Hail, full of grace!”
This was no ordinary child.
So it’s no surprise that some in the early Church believed
that when she was a very little girl
Mary made a vow of virginity to God:
consecrating and dedicating her whole life to him.
Some say that from the age of about 3 years old she was
brought to the Temple where she was educated by the holy women
until she was about 12.
Some talk about the fact that she would have had multiple experiences
of visions and inspirations from God.
In any case, between Mary’s
unique holiness, her clear intellect, and her complete love of the Lord,
combined with God’s unique love for her,
we can only imagine how splendidly she was prepared
to be His mother.
Think of God the Son, who existed from all eternity,
and imagine how sitting on his throne in heaven
he must have looked down with love and tenderness
on this young girl who he knew would one day become his mother.
Imagine how He would
provide for her and protect her from heaven,
how he would send his angels to defend her,
how he would speak to her lovingly,
even before he was born, or even conceived,
perhaps even as he spoke to Moses and the prophets.
This is the girl, who, when the angel Gabriel came to her
and told her that she would be the Mother of God himself,
did not run and hide from her calling.
Instead she responded:
“How shall this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
–in other words, “I’m a virgin, what am I to do? tell me, and I’ll do it!”
This is something else we certainly know about this young girl:
she was a virgin
–at least 3 times in today’s gospel, St. Matthew repeats this fact.
He’s insistent that she’s a virgin because he wants no doubt that
—one, this is the woman that the prophets spoke of in the old Testament,
particularly Isaiah, when he foretold:
“the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.”
–and two, that no mere man is the father of this child,
but that God alone is his true Father.
And when the angel told her this great news she responded:
“let it be done to me according to your word.”
Complete and utter faith, trust, and acceptance of God’s will.
This is the woman, who received her Lord in perfect faith and love.
Who held him in her womb;
who cared for and worried for her baby
as only as an expectant mother could,
and waited for him with joy and love beyond all telling.
What about Joseph?
If we know little about Mary’s childhood, we know even less about Joseph’s.
We know that, like Mary, he was a direct descendant of King David,
and that he was perhaps born in Bethlehem,
but more likely born in Nazareth
where he lived and worked as a carpenter.
His relative obscurity in Scripture leads us to conclude that he was humble man,
who taught his son, Jesus, to be a humble man
—to serve, not to be served.
Some of the legends about him say
that he was an old man when he married Mary.
Some suggest this as a reason he was able to be celibate with the Virgin
—personally, I think that degrades both the gift of celibacy
and the virtue of St. Joseph.
So I agree with others in the tradition
who accept him as a young man of marrying age.
But above all, we know he was a righteous man,
which, in the language of Scripture,
means a man who was exceptionally holy,
always following the will of God.
And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that it is the tradition of the Fathers,
and the “common teaching” of the Church,
that like Mary, he too was prepared from an early age
for his role in salvation history.
That Joseph, who unlike Mary, was not conceived without original sin,
nevertheless, like Mary never committed a personal sin in his life.
Indeed, some even believe that Joseph was purified from original sin
after his conception in his mother’s womb.
All of this because he had been chosen to stand in, on earth,
for Jesus’ Father in heaven,
to adopt Jesus, and to be a true father to him on earth.
To teach Jesus, insofar as he was human, how to be a man, a righteous man.
It is this Joseph who is married to the Virgin Mary.
Every once in a while I hear some Biblically ignorant minister or priest
say that: “Mary was an unwed mother.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
While God would not protect her and her baby
from the sinful choices made by men,
he would do everything he could to protect her and the child
from the effects of those sins.
So, for example, when King Herod tried to have the infant killed
God warned Joseph so he could hide his family in Egypt.
In the same way, God gave Mary a husband from the beginning,
to protect her and his son from all harm.
And she would need that protection from the very beginning.
Here’s what we read today:
“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, …decided to divorce her quietly.”
Joseph was “her husband.”
And see how he says Joseph decided to “divorce” her.
One does not have to get a divorce if one is not married.
What you have to remember is that in ancient Israel
there were 2 stages to marriage:
the first was betrothal,
which was the commitment made between the spouses.
This isn’t like our modern day “engagement”
—when you were betrothed you were legally married.
The only thing left to do was as Scripture says:
“to live together,”
or for the husband to actually “take his wife into his home.”
And so after the angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him
the truth about Mary’s son
and that he, Joseph was part of God’s plan,
the Gospel concludes:
“[and Joseph] took his wife into his home.”
But it was the betrothal that protected Mary from accusation of adultery
—and from being stoned to death
(which was the penalty for that crime)—
since everyone would naturally assume
that Joseph had already, previously, “taken her into his home”
and exercised his husbandly prerogatives.
The only way this could fall apart was if Joseph were to publicly denounce her.
But does Joseph publicly denounce her?
Most men in this situation would react in anger, even violence.
But not Joseph.
Instead, St. Matthew tells us:
“since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.”
What was Joseph thinking?
Some think that he thought her guilty of adultery,
but loved her so much that he didn’t want her to be stoned,
so he was going to simply divorce her
without publicly denouncing her.
But it seems to me there’s a better explanation.
Perhaps, having been prepared by God for this moment from his birth,
Joseph is aware that something wonderful is going on here.
He knows that Mary is special,
perhaps he even knows she’s taken a vow of virginity,
And perhaps he suspects that she is the one Isaiah spoke of,
that she is the “virgin” who would be the mother of “Emmanuel.”
Maybe Mary told him what Gabriel had said to her and he believed her.
And in his great humility, not knowing what God has planned,
but simply believing that he is too unworthy to be part of it,
Joseph chooses to remove himself,
to get out of Mary’s way—and God’s way.
Judging by his reaction to the angel’s message to him
this seems the more likely case, at least to me,
since Scripture tells us that immediately upon awakening from his dream
“he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him,
and took his wife into his home.”
These are the Joseph and Mary that were prepared for the birth of Christ
from the earliest days of their lives
—chosen by God to prepare a place for Jesus in the world.
To welcome him with open and loving arms.
To serve him, even as he was to serve them.
To worship and adore him, even as they corrected his childish mistakes.
This is the Mary and Joseph who traveled on the rocky mountainous roads
from Nazareth in the North of Israel, to Bethlehem in the south,
during the cold month of December.
This is the Mary and Joseph, dedicated to their baby and to each other,
who wandered the streets of Bethlehem
looking for a place to lay their heads.
This was the Mary and Joseph who hastily cleaned the stable,
sweeping the floor, washing the dirty manger and laying out fresh hay.
This was the Mary and Joseph who watched in awe
the miraculous birth of God the Son
—who were filled with the immeasurable joy
at the coming of the Messiah.
This was the Mary and Joseph who loved our Lord
as only a new mommy and daddy can
—more than you and I could ever begin to.
While the best Christmas present is always saved for Christmas morning,
most of us get a few Christmas presents in the days before Christmas.
As we make our last minute Christmas preparations this week,
let us remember to open the wonderful gifts God gives us today:
the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.
Gifts he gives us to help us prepare for his greatest gift of Christmas—his Son.
Let us turn to them as examples,
and ask them, who prepared so perfectly for the coming of their son,
to show us how to prepare.
And as we a move into these last few days before the birth of their little baby,
let us stay close to them so that they may show us
the wonder, the awe, the joy and love that Christmas means.