4th Sunday of Advent
St. John the Baptist, as the one who goes before Jesus Christ and prepares the way, is a prominent figure in the season of Advent. He announces the coming of Jesus not just by his words, but also by his person. He is so evidently a man of God, a holy man, a prophet, that people even wonder if he might not be the Christ. He answers their question saying, I am not he, but I go before him, I am not even worthy to untie the strap of his sandal. (cf. Jn 1:20, 27) The greatness of St. John the Baptist lifts up our minds better to glimpse the greatness of Christ himself.
We come to know the greatness of God the Creator through the splendor of his creation. The Book of Wisdom teaches us: If out of joy in their beauty [the pagans] thought [the marvels of creation] to be gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original author of beauty fashioned them. Or if they were struck by their might and energy let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things their original author, by analogy is seen. (Wi 13:3-5)
By a similar process of analogy, we can move from the reality of grace, its beauty, and transformative power, in the lives of the saints, to a better conception of the greatness of the author and font of grace, Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, from whose fullness we have all received. (Jn 1:16)
Unfortunately, the cultural tendency of our own times, marked by the envy of the devil, is to drag all human greatness down to the level of our own sinful and disordered lives. We are no longer even allowed to admire the true natural greatness of some historical figure if that greatness is marred by some defect, especially a defect that fails to conform to contemporary political correctness.
This leveling tendency of our culture and our cultural imagination has even plunged Mary and Joseph into the mire of our impure minds and imaginations. I will not even mention the vile, obscene, and blasphemous portrayals of Mary and Joseph that are such an obvious offense against our Savior. I will, however, observe that even some of those who profess devotion to Mary and Joseph have succumbed to the temptation of thinking of St. Joseph as Jesus’ stepdad and the Holy Virgin Mary as a single mother.
The rather interpretative translations in today’s Gospel have not helped matters. Two corrections are in order.
First, where our translation reads before they lived together, a more accurate and more traditional translation would read before they came together. The evangelist was not concerned about where they was living, but rather he wanted to remove any question regarding Mary’s virginity. I would also argue that this is the reason for the language of ‘betrothal’; the idea of a virginal marriage was unheard of so that even though Joseph and Mary were truly married, to introduce them immediately as ‘married’ would cast doubt on Mary’s virginity.
In planning the entrance of his Son into the world, God was not concerned to provide for him prosperous material circumstances or elevated social standing, but he did provide him with a truly noble and honorable family.
The first mistranslation leads to the next. Our translation reports the angel as saying, Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. This translation correctly refers to Mary as already being Joseph’s wife, but adds the words ‘into your home’ as the solemn act by which a Jewish man moves past the stage of betrothal into the fulness of marriage. The words ‘into your home’, however, are not found in the original Greek text. The more accurate and traditional rendering would be, do not fear to take (or ‘receive’) Mary, your wife. The concern of the evangelist is not the passage from betrothal to marriage, but the contrast between sending Mary away (which would be the literal translation of ‘divorce’) and keeping her.
Why is this so important? Because a right reading of this passage helps us better to conceive the greatness and holiness of St. Joseph, which will help us better conceive the greatness and holiness of the Virgin Mary, which will help us better conceive the greatness and holiness the man Jesus Christ, which will help us better conceive the greatness and holiness to which each one of us, by the grace and mercy of God, is called to share.
We need to rediscover the wonderful work that God has done for our salvation, to learn to stand in awe and amazement, and to give him praise and thanksgiving.
Last Sunday, we heard Jesus, speaking of St. John the Baptist say, Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
I already spoke about moving from the greatness of St. John the Baptist, which leads us to the greatness of Jesus Christ. Yet, the words of Jesus point to something less than himself, but greater than St. John the Baptist, namely, the least in the kingdom of heaven.
Who are these ‘least’?
We could consider the Kingdom of Heaven as the kingdom of God’s grace, in which case all those who share in the very life of God through grace belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. This would include St. John the Baptist and also all the patriarchs, prophets and just of the people of Israel, all those who believed in Christ to come.
Or we could consider the Kingdom of Heaven as the visible presence of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, realized through the sacraments, as signs and causes of grace, and the Church, as the visible community of grace. In this case, all who are baptized share a gift that not even St. John the Baptist enjoyed; even those who are not faithful to their baptismal grace are interiorly marked with the ‘sacred character’ of baptism, they are marked as belonging to Christ, priest, prophet, and king. Nevertheless, St. John the Baptist is greater than these in the life of grace and especially is greater than those who have the character of baptism without the life of grace.
Or we could consider the Kingdom of Heaven immediately in relation to the King himself, Jesus Christ, in which case those belong to the Kingdom of Heaven who are inseparable from the humanity of Jesus Christ: namely Mary and Joseph. Through the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of the Church, we are called to share in the life of the kingdom of the Holy Family. The ‘least’ in this Kingdom of Heaven is St. Joseph. Mary and Joseph are not as human beings are, in our experience of sin and the disorder of soul that arises from sin, but as they should be.
If we consider today’s Gospel in light of the Church’s tradition, already St. Jerome in the 4th century, perceived that St. Joseph did not doubt the virtue of Mary, but rather recognizing the work of God, doubted his own worthiness to be part of this mystery. That is why he did not want to expose her publicly, casting shame upon a woman he knew to be virtuous and pure, but chose rather to send her away quietly, entrusting her to God, while bringing upon himself the disgrace of abandoning his pregnant wife.
This understanding is confirmed by especially by the greeting of the angel: Joseph, son of David. Exactly as the angel revealed Mary to herself as full of grace, he reveals Joseph to himself as son of David. By calling St. Joseph, son of David, the angel makes known that he, specifically, is the heir of the messianic promise God had made to David: I will raise up your offspring after you, who will be one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me a house and I will establish his throne of forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12-14) The angel makes known to St. Joseph that he belongs here, that he has been chosen by God to transmit the messianic promise to the one who will bring it to fulfillment, he will give to Jesus his name and his inheritance in the line of David, the messianic inheritance.
St. Bernardine of Siena taught: “Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfill the task at hand. This general rule is especially verified in the case of St. Joseph.” (Sermon 2, de S. Joseph, cited in Office of Readings, March 19) St. Joseph was thus the worthy husband of the Virgin Mary and the worthy guardian of the child Jesus, worthy even to be called ‘father’ by the Son of God. He is truly the just man who hears the word of God and puts it into practice.
St. Joseph is the man who allowed the shepherds to come in and adore the child lying in the manger. He is the man who allowed the Magi to enter and to adore the child in the arms of his mother. He is the man who can lead us into the mystery of Christmas. He is the man who can allow us entrance into the Holy Family, the Family of God’s grace.