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Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2022

Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 1:18–24. In this passage, we read about Joseph the just man who allows his life plans to be changed by the will of God revealed to him in a dream. As we enter these final days of preparation for Christmas, this passage offers some particular points for our reflection.
Joseph was in a dilemma as to what he should do. We are told that he was a “just” man. That description means Joseph is someone who kept the law and obeyed it. However, the law (Dt 22:23–27) presented quite harsh consequences for women in such a situation as Mary; that is, with child, and the betrothed husband was not the father. At the very least, such a woman was to be publicly humiliated, and in a worst-case scenario she could even be stoned to death for disgracing her household. Although he was an observer of the law, Joseph chose not to subject another human being to such a cruel fate. He had to decide whether he would keep the letter of the law and expose Mary to shame or allow his actions to be guided by compassion and mercy. This is a situation Jesus will address in the Gospel of Matthew very clearly when He teaches us that the greatest law is that of loving God and our neighbor. Everything else is subject to that one great commandment. Christianity is not a matter of blind adherence to laws and rules. Rather, we are to consider the impact our actions have on other people’s lives and demonstrate that mercy and compassion are inspired by God. After all, law was made for man and not man for the law (Mk 2:27). Jesus will teach us the primacy of love as the interpretative element for all laws when He says:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:43–45).

Joseph was ready to go beyond being just; he was ready to be merciful even if it meant not observing the law. Even in his feelings of hurt, anger, confusion, and betrayal, Joseph still cared about Mary and didn’t want to inflict any injury upon her. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Joseph determined to conduct himself now by a higher rule than the law, for now that grace was appearing; it would be fitting that many tokens of that exalted citizenship be expressed.”[1]

How does the example of Joseph challenge you?
How can the strict observance of laws today end up hurting people rather than helping people?
When have you had to break a rule in order to be merciful to someone?
Joseph risked the misunderstanding of others when he took Mary into his home. When have you risked being misunderstood for being merciful to someone else?
What is the greatest law that governs and interprets your family life?
What is the greatest law that governs and interprets your professional life?

Although Joseph thought he was being quite heroic in choosing to be merciful to Mary, the reality is that God had something even better in mind. God wanted Joseph to be a part of His Divine Plan for the world and to provide a home for Jesus. That is a mission Joseph could have never imagined on his own. Rather, it was a revelation of God’s will that became manifest to him. God’s plan called Joseph to go beyond being merely heroic and to become a person who is heroically holy. That understanding of God’s will unfolded for Joseph in the context of a dream. God continues to use our imagination as the place where we are inspired to know the Lord’s will. We can choose to focus our imagination on images of revenge, or self-pitying, or triumph, or any other way to resolve the challenges we face. We can also choose to focus our imagination on what Jesus would do in a similar situation as ours. A person doesn’t have to be Christian to act in a heroic way, but Christians are called to act in a heroically holy way. As disciples, we are called to rise above the highest standards of the secular world around us and to bear witness in our lives to the very holiness and sacrificial love of God. That means being much more than just a nice person. When we choose to use our imagination as a method of prayer, the Lord will inspire us to see how we can live out God’s will not just in a heroic way but even in a holy way. It is literally mindboggling to gain a glimpse of how God calls us to live each day. When we open ourselves and sincerely ask the Lord to inspire us so that we might be the instrument of His salvation and redemption in the world, then we are offering the Lord the gift of our lives to use according to His will. It is at this moment that Joseph reveals another great quality. Joseph was not only a dreamer, but he also acted on that moment of inspiration. The Gospel tells us that when he awoke, he took Mary into his home; he did as the angel had commanded. It’s one thing to imagine what God’s will wants to accomplish in and through our lives; it’s quite another thing for us to let the Lord use our lives to do that will.

How have you used your imagination as a resource for prayer?
What are some of the ways that we dismiss inspired moments so as to not respond to them?
What are some of the daydreams with which God is inspiring you at this time?
Have you ever been surprised to learn that someone else is being inspired with the same faith-filled dream as you, and have you found it meaningful?
What is the holiest thing you can imagine doing today?
Who are some of the faith-filled dreamers of our time who see and respond to the will of God?

Throughout this Advent time, we have been focusing our attention on what it means to prepare for the coming of Jesus. One of the ways Jesus is present to us is through the lives of faithful Christians who manifest “God with us” (Emmanuel) by their actions of saving love for others. God can accomplish His will without us, so it is worth considering why the Lord wants our cooperation in His plan. Perhaps it’s because the Lord wants to give us the privilege and joy of bringing His presence to others. God delights in letting us be His co-workers! That cooperation can only happen, however, when we say “Yes” to the will of God and give the Lord permission to use our lives in an active response of generosity and enthusiasm. Part of our Advent journey is about leading us to that moment of faithful surrender so that we can become a selfless conduit of God’s grace for others. That’s what Mary did with her “Yes”, that’s what Joseph did with his “Yes”, and that’s what we can do with our “Yes”. People who say “Yes” to eagerly accomplish the Lord’s will can change the world. Saint Catherine of Siena challenged Christians in the fourteenth century to be such heroic witnesses of faith when she said, “If you were to become who God intends you to be, you would set the (world) on fire.”[2] In the final verse of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus fulfills His earthly ministry by assuring His disciples that He will be “with them always” (Mt 28:20). Our Lord can give this assurance because His presence in the world will always be known through lives of heroic people of faith who say “Yes” to God’s will and offer themselves for the Lord’s work.

Who exemplifies heroic spiritual surrender in their lives?
How do you know that “God is with you” (“Emmanuel”) each day?
Who has inspired you to want to live a heroic life?
Who has inspired you to want to live a holy life?
What are some of the limits or qualifications (or even expiration dates) we can put on our “Yes” to God?
This reading shows us what great things can happen when people say “Yes” to God. What are practical examples of things you think happen when people say “No” to God?
When we pray about difficult situations in our world, we oftentimes ask God to do something; has it ever occurred to you that God did do something  — He created you?

Joseph is an interesting figure in the Gospel. We don’t know much about him except what we read in the Gospel of Matthew. Most Scripture scholars consider it probable that Joseph died sometime prior to Jesus’ public ministry and that explains why Mary, Jesus, and the family are mentioned later in the Gospel accounts but never Joseph (Mt 12:46–50). In many ways, Joseph is a hidden yet essential part of the Gospel message. God needed Joseph to provide a nurturing home for Jesus and a caring husband for Mary. It takes a man of outstanding qualities to offer his life for such a mission and to do so humbly, quietly, respectfully, sacrificially, and so forth. Joseph worked day in and day out to provide for the family he accepted when he said “Yes” to God.

In what ways do you identify with Joseph?
What do you think was Joseph’s greatest virtue?
What do you think was most difficult for Joseph in his role as the foster father of Jesus?
What opportunities do you have to care for someone for whom you are not legally responsible?
If you were to pray to St. Joseph for inspiration today, what would be your prayer?

[1] St. John Chrysostom, “The Gospel of Matthew: Homily 4.4” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, Ia, Matthew 1-13, Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2001, pp. 14-15.
[2] St. Catherine of Siena, Adaptation of Letter T368. For a systematic edition of the letters, see S. Noffke, Letters of Catherine of Siena, vols. 1-3, Arizona Center for Religious Studies, 2007.
Our Lady of Guadalupe. December 12,1531, cactus fiber, Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Matthew 1:18-24
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.
Such was his intention 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.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,

which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.