Advent calms a hectic season
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good news for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 20, 1998
Christmas, as they say, is at our throats again. There is no protection from mass marketing, seasonal sales, compulsory cards, obligatory occasions, preponderate purchasing, and weary wrapping. We may try to keep from getting inundated with the season, but we're battling a powerful force. The demands of Christmas make it hard to celebrate the meaning of Christmas.
For three weeks now Advent has labored mightily against the Christmas tide. You can listen to the Scripture readings for the first three weeks of Advent as intently as grandparents receiving a child's phone call, but you won't hear a single word about manger, shepherds, angels, or even the Virgin Mary. The Advent lectionary has worked hammer and tongs for three weeks to turn our attention elsewhere. It has prepared us for the coming of Christ - but for the next coming, not the first one. It put us on alert to be watchful and ready for the Savior's return.
Next Sunday, though, Advent caves in. Finally, we hear the story we've been waiting for, the announcement of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-24).
It comes at a price. First, Matthew maps out the genealogy of Jesus Christ. We have the option of a shorter form of the gospel for next Sunday, omitting the DNA, and most parishes exercise their option.
The genealogy has its oddities. It does not match up with other genealogies of the Old Testament. It proudly divides itself into three groups of 14 generations, but the middle group of 14 is longer than the other two. It mentions women, unusual for genealogies of the time, including an unwed mother and a Gentile, as if to say, "Oops!" But its main purpose is to place Jesus in the context of Abraham the father and David the king of Israel. Jesus is the king who will bring new birth to a new people.
When we finally get to the story we've been waiting for, we meet the beloved and respected Joseph. The basic story is well known: Joseph observes that the woman he is about to marry has already conceived a child. He plans to divorce her when an angel appears to tell him the wedding is still on. The child comes from the Holy Spirit and Joseph is to name him "Jesus," which means "Savior."
That scene recalls the one in Luke's Gospel where the angel appears to Mary and asks her obedience to God's plan (Luke 1:26-38). Here the angel appears to Joseph for the same purpose.
The angel then quotes Isaiah: "The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son and they shall call him 'Emmanuel.' " This passage forms part of next Sunday's first reading (Isaiah 7:10-14).
Isaiah's prophecy was political. King Ahaz of Israel was planning an alliance with Assyria. Isaiah, opposed to this strategy, urged him to ask God for a sign. The prophet knew God could help Israel without Assyria. But Ahaz had already decided and thought a sign from God superfluous. "Very well, then," Isaiah smugly replied. "God will give you a sign anyway." And this was the sign, the birth of Emmanuel.
The translation of this passage has caused endless discussions. Isaiah's Hebrew word for the mother means "young woman" or "virgin." An early Greek translation used a word that meant only "virgin." Matthew's angel quotes the Greek translation to Joseph. This results in a half-baked prophetic fulfillment. The angel reassures Joseph that he can relax about the pregnancy of his bride-to-be because God has worked three miracles: The Holy Spirit has engendered the child. God has kept the virginity of the mother intact. God planned this all along since the time of Isaiah.
You could argue the translation issue with the angel if you wanted, but it still does not diminish the size of this miracle - God taking on human flesh.
Advent hands us special binoculars. It invites us to look through them at the past. There we will see the hand of God already at work in the prophets, preparing for the present. But Advent hopes we'll see the present differently too: God at work in the present will come again in the future. To Christians badgered by a Christmas season that threatens to distance us from Christ, Advent offers those same prophetic binoculars. If the Holy Spirit can work around the Assyrian army, a checkered genealogy, and a serious prenuptial snafu, that same Spirit can work around the feast of capitalism to bring us Christmas cheer.
Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, Kansas City.