Tuesday December 18, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Week in Advent
Reading (Jeremiah 23:5-8) Gospel (St. Matthew 1:18-24)
We hear the words from the prophet Jeremiah that the days are coming when the Lord will raise up a righteous shoot to David and he shall reign and govern wisely, and do what is just and right in the land. From the time of the prophet Jeremiah to this particular day, not one person can be said to have been raised up to be the king in Israel, on the natural level, that would fit this particular description. It has never occurred. We have to ask ourselves, then, is it something that is going to happen yet in the future, that Israel is going to be brought back and they are going to have a righteous person that is going to govern over them? The answer is no. This is about the spiritual Israel; this is about the New Israel, the New Jerusalem; this is about the new people of God. That is what Jeremiah was seeing.
Jeremiah is the one who was able to prophesy exactly how long it would be that the people would be in exile and when the Messiah was going to be born and all these different things. So he understood well that this was not about the physical and historical Israel and Judah, but this was about the New Israel; this was about the spiritual Israel - and that is the Church. We hear about this righteous shoot that is going to be raised up. Then we hear in the Gospel reading about Joseph, the righteous man from the house of David; and then, of course, about Jesus Himself, who is The Righteous Man, the perfectly righteous individual.
But we see the righteousness of Saint Joseph first. And we see how God had prepared the world and in particular how he prepared the tribe of David and the tribe of Judah for the coming of the Messiah, for the birth of this Righteous One. This righteous shoot is, first of all, Saint Joseph; ultimately, of course, it is Jesus. And then we have Our Lady as well – perfectly righteous. So when we hear these words from the prophet Jeremiah, the Church is showing us that they are fulfilled in Saint Joseph. In this we see Joseph being an upright man (a righteous man is what that means) who was unwilling to expose Our Lady to the law. To this very day in some of the Arab countries, if a woman is found to be with child prior to being married she will still be killed. The law was very strict about these things.
It was not that Saint Joseph ever even entertained a thought that Our Lady had been unfaithful. He knew the holiness of Our Lady. The two of them had vowed virginity with one another. It never crossed his mind that Our Lady had done something that was impure or sinful. But rather, Saint Joseph, being as righteous as he is, recognized the holiness of what was happening within Our Lady. It was out of a sense of reverence, out of awe that he was going to back away. He recognized that he himself was a sinner and he saw that what was happening was of God, that it was completely holy, and he did not have the righteousness in his own mind to be part of this mystery that was unfolding within the womb of Our Blessed Lady. So, out of reverence, he decided that he would back away; not to expose Our Lady in any way, but rather, he simply did not find himself worthy to be part of this mystery.
That is why the angel would say, "Joseph, have no fear to take Mary as your wife." Why would he be afraid? It was not for any natural reason, but it was purely for a spiritual reason. And you notice how he immediately accepts what the angel tells him and is completely obedient (once again, demonstrating the righteousness of Saint Joseph). Then we are told by Saint Matthew that as soon as this took place he recognized the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah that "the virgin would be with child and would give birth to a son, and would name him Emmanuel." Saint Joseph, at this point, understood completely what was happening. And he understood that God had invited him into something which was completely supernatural. In his own unworthiness, the righteous man Saint Joseph was willing to say yes to God.
We must do the same. We have no righteousness of our own. But yet, as we say right before receiving Holy Communion: Only say the word, and my soul shall be healed. The righteousness that we have is the righteousness God has given us. And God has called us into an even more intimate mystery (or at least a more intimate union with the mystery) than Saint Joseph ever knew: Not only are we able to be close to Jesus as Saint Joseph was, but we can receive Him into ourselves. We are completely unworthy of such a thing. But it is God who has made us righteous with His own righteousness. Therefore, we are able to say yes even though we recognize our own unworthiness. That is what Saint Joseph understood. As soon as the angel let him know what he was supposed to do, Saint Joseph was willing to say yes.
So as God calls each one of us to this intimacy with Himself, we must hear the words of the angel speaking in our hearts: "Do not fear." There is nothing at all to fear because God has made us righteous. Therefore, we are called to this intimacy, to this union with Jesus in the Holy Eucharist so that we will be one with Him. It is not to fear to take Mary as your wife but, for us, it is to take Mary as our mother. And even more so, do not fear to take Jesus into your own house. That is really what that little prayer says right before Communion: I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. I am not worthy that You should enter into this house. Yet, Saint Joseph took Mary into his house and that is what each one of us does with the Eucharist: We receive Jesus into our house. Not because of our righteousness, but because of His. And so, look beyond the self. Have the reverence and the awe in the presence of the Lord, but do as the angel of the Lord commands us: to have no fear and to receive Our Lord into our hearts.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.