Abbot Richard’s Gospel Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent – 18 December 2016

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-24

Unexpected news

In this Sunday’s Gospel we meet the third of the three great Advent characters, Mary, the mother of Jesus, though St Matthew chooses to introduce her to us through a story about St Joseph. Matthew gives us the essential elements of Mary’s story but we discover more details within the context of Joseph’s dream.  Mary was engaged to Joseph but before they had been together she becomes pregnant, so thinking she had been unfaithful he decides to end the relationship.  From Mary’s point of view it was an awkward and confusing situation but for Joseph it was embarrassing and disappointing.

We can probably all identify with both Mary and Joseph. For both of them, their lives and their plans have been changed unexpectedly.  This can lead to confusion and disappointment.  They were probably both discouraged and worried.  When we get upsetting news, such as Mary and Joseph received, it is important to remember that the news, if it’s true, won’t change.  We can pretend we haven’t heard it or we can pretend that it’s not true, but that doesn’t change the news.  Rather what changes things is our attitude and reaction to the news.

Joseph’s dream sheds more light on the situation. Mary has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, the child will be a boy and he is to be named Jesus.  This baby will be the one to save the people from their sins.  There are some other details of interest too.  Joseph is addressed as Son of David, and Matthew tells us that this dream was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, in which the boy to be born of the virgin will be called Emmanuel, or ‘God-is-with-us’.

Unlike St Luke’s gospel, which focuses on Mary, Matthew focusses on Joseph. He is telling the same story through a different lens.  Matthew begins his gospel by tracing Joseph’s lineage back to Abraham and Isaac, through King David, down to Jacob, Joseph’s father.  That fact that the angel appears to Joseph in a dream is reminiscent of Joseph the dreamer.  The reference to the prophecy of Isaiah and the naming of the child as Emmanuel is the first of many references in St Matthew’s gospel to the fulfilment of prophecies.

Reflecting on the announcement of the news of imminent birth of Jesus, whether it is to Mary by the angel Gabriel or to Joseph in a dream, is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves how we receive unexpected news. Do we panic, or go into denial mode? Or do we accept, like Mary and Joseph, that the news, if true, won’t change.

Matthew ends his account by telling us that ‘Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do’. Of course, it is not easy to hear and accept unexpected news, it takes time to get used to it and work out what we are going to do.  As we approach the feast of the birth of Jesus, the gospels remind us that Jesus’ birth depended on the cooperation of both Mary and Joseph.  If Jesus is to be born in our hearts then we need to be open to the unexpected, for neither Joseph nor Mary were expecting the news they received.

Fr Richard Purcell ocso