Called to Obedience
Sunday December 23, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week in Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 7:10-14) Reading II (Romans 1:1-7)
Gospel (St. Matthew 1:18-24)
In the readings today, the Church lays out for us the foundation for the Nativity of Our Lord. The question of "Who is He?" is answered for us today. As we prepare in just a couple of days for His birth, the Church wants to make sure that we understand clearly who He is. Not that we did not understand it as Christian people, but the Church lays the foundation for us to be able to demonstrate that God made sure all the legalities of the Jewish law were completely covered, and that the birth of Our Lord was understood to be completely proper and in line with all the things the Jewish people would have been looking at.
Now we can [say to] ourselves that right from the beginning it does not look entirely proper. Here we have Saint Joseph in the Gospel reading thinking that he may want to divorce our Blessed Lady. We have to understand that in Galilee, at the time of Mary and Joseph, there was a long period of betrothal Ė about 6 months. In that time, the couple was considered legally married and yet their marriage would not be consummated until 6 months later when they actually moved into the same home together. So it was a little bit more than an engagement and a little bit less than a complete marriage. It was in that betrothal time that Our Blessed Lady conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. And we are told that Saint Joseph was considering a divorce.
But we are also told that he is a righteous man. To be truly righteous means [to be] without sin. He had achieved perfection; he was truly holy. As we look at this reading we have to understand that it is not a matter of trying to get around the law. Where Saint Matthew tells us that Saint Joseph did not want to expose Mary to the law it was not because he thought Our Lady had committed adultery. If that were the case, he would not be righteous in not allowing her to be exposed to the law; it would be a violation of the law. A woman who was caught in the act of adultery or who clearly had done something adulterous would, by law, have to be turned over to the law. And to say that Saint Joseph on one hand is righteous and on the other hand that he is violating the law would be contrary to one another. So it is not that at all. We need to completely dispel from our minds any thought that Saint Joseph even entertained the possibility that Our Lady could have been unfaithful to him. That was completely the furthest thing from Saint Josephís imagination; that would never have crossed his mind. Knowing Our Lady as he did and knowing the situation, Saint Joseph was not at all concerned that Our Lady had been unfaithful. He knew her love and he knew her holiness. He also understood, from what Our Lady had told him, that the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. And he believed.
Then we see the angel appearing to Saint Joseph and telling Saint Joseph that the child was indeed conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he is not to fear to take Mary into his home. The fear here is one of reverence. It is not that he was afraid of the law. It is not that he was afraid of what anyone might think of him: because if they were able to count things up, they would maybe figure out that by the time Mary moved into the home and so on that it was not a complete nine months. We can think of all these things on the human level. It was none of that at all. The fear is one of reverence. It shows the holiness and the devotion of Saint Joseph to Our Lady and to Our Lord, that he would look at what was going on in the womb of Our Blessed Mother and he would see himself to be completely unworthy to be part of the mystery of the Incarnation. Out of reverence, out of holy fear Saint Joseph decided that he would back away, that he would divorce Our Lady and allow Our Lord to be alone with her. If she is the spouse of the Holy Spirit, he thought, how is it possible that she would be my spouse? How could I possibly, in my human sinfulness, be a part of this sinlessness that is going on here? The holiness and the awe and the absolute mystery that was taking place within Our Blessed Mother was something that Saint Joseph recognized, acknowledged, and reverenced. And he feared. Not fear in the sense of quaking, but again, fear in the sense of reverence Ė the awe in the presence of the absolute holiness of God and of His Mother. That is what Saint Joseph was doing.
At the same time, he is obedient to the angel and he takes Mary into his home. This, again, is something that was necessary according to the law because the moment that Our Lady crossed the threshold of Saint Josephís home the child within her womb became legally the adopted child of Saint Joseph. So Jesus can literally and truly be called in the legal sense the Son of Joseph because by law He became the Son of Joseph at that very moment that he [Joseph] took Mary into his home. We see, then, that Saint Joseph is a descendant of David. If we look at the genealogy in Saint Lukeís Gospel, we see that Mary, too, is a descendant of David. And so the promises made to the House of David were fulfilled, as we see in the first reading the promise made to Ahaz: Isaiah, speaking on Godís behalf, said, "House of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God?" It was about the lineage of David; it is fulfilling the prophecy made to David that one of his sons would sit forever upon his throne.
But we see that there is even more than this that is going on. If you talk with some of your non-Catholic friends they will argue with you about what this first reading says because what we heard in the first reading is what we also heard in the Gospel: that a virgin will be with child and she will bear a son, and she will name him Emmanuel. The word that is used there in the Hebrew is actually the word almah which would normally be translated as a "young woman". In the Protestant versions of the Bible that is what they tend to do, to translate that as "a young woman will be with child and will bear a son". But that is clearly not the way that the Jewish people understood it. When they translated the Hebrew text into Greek, they did not use the word for a "young woman" but rather they used the word "virgin". The word for a young woman would have been neanias in Greek; it is not even close or even related to the word that was used where they used parthenos which means a "virgin" Ė a very specific term. Now I should point out that almah, while normally translated as a "young woman", can also mean a "virgin". So it is not a mistranslation, but rather it is a very specific understanding. It would hardly be a sign from God if a young woman would be with child; that is a very common thing that happens. But it is a clear sign from God when a virgin is with child.
And it is even more clear when the child is God, when the child is Emmanuel Ė "God-with-us". Saint Matthew makes very clear to us that this is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: that indeed a virgin is with child and the name of the child is Emmanuel. Now the angel tells us that the childís name is Jesus, a name which means a "savior". But the child is God-with-us. And so, while He is not named Emmanuel legally, that is the reality: He is Emmanuel. He is not named Emmanuel; He simply is Emmanuel. He is with us. He is God.
It is in all of these points of understanding that we see all the legalities completely worked out by God: that Jesus is in the lineage of the House of David, that He is the fulfillment of the prophecies of old. And now the Church takes us beyond that and lays the foundation for Christmas so that we understand fully who He is. Now the Church looks beyond and points to each one of us. In that second reading today, from the beginning of Saint Paulís Letter to the Romans, we hear from Saint Paul about how Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of all the ancient prophecies, but that now He has called us to holiness, that it is in this that the Gospel has been completed; and He has called Saint Paul and the others to apostleship to be able to preach the Gospel, but that He has called each one of us to obedience, to the obedience of faith and to holiness. That is what we read in the second reading.
It is something which is very profound and must be understood in the same way that we see Saint Joseph in the Gospel reading. Saint Joseph is so forgotten and receives so little credit for what it is that he did. This man is profoundly holy. Think about the holiness of the man that God chose to entrust with his two most precious treasures, the two greatest gifts that He has ever provided in this world: His own Son and His Mother. He entrusted both of them to the care of Saint Joseph. Saint Joseph is called a righteous man. He is truly holy; he has become perfected in his holiness. Not perfect in the way that Our Lady was, meaning that she was without sin from the first moment of her conception; not perfect in the way that Jesus was, meaning absolute perfection, that there could be no growth in holiness in Jesus; but perfect in the sense that Saint Joseph had overcome all sin, had overcome all imperfections in his life. This was a truly holy and righteous man.
We are told of Saint Joseph that when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to take Mary into his home he was obedient. He did not hesitate for a moment; immediately, Saint Joseph acted upon what the angel had told him. Even though he had an absolute awe of what was happening, recognizing his own unworthiness, although he had achieved perfection, he wanted to back away so that God could deal with Our Lady as He saw fit. Immediately, when the angel told him to take Mary into his home Saint Joseph was obedient and acted without question and without delay.
That, for each one of us, is what we have to be about as well. God has called each one of us. As Saint Paul made clear to the Romans, God had called each one of them. He called Saint Paul, He called the other apostles, but He also called each one of the ordinary people of Rome and each one of the ordinary people of all the other places that He called to Baptism and that He has called to obedience. We must learn from Saint Joseph. Now we could say that, unlike Saint Joseph, we have not achieved perfection. And because of that, God will be merciful with our hesitations and with our doubts. ButÖGod is not going to be very tolerant with our disobedience: when we know the Will of God and we willfully choose to be disobedient, when we know the Will of God and we willfully choose not to be holy. That is not going to be tolerated by God. And that is something that each one of us needs to grapple with.
Like Saint Joseph, we must be obedient. We must be obedient to the call that God has given to each one of us, the call given to each one of us in Baptism. It is not something that is extrinsic to us, but rather, it is completely intrinsic. God is calling us to holiness in Jesus Christ. He is calling each one of us to union with His Son. He is calling each one of us to obedience. And it is not merely obedience to an angel, as though that would not be enough, but it is obedience to His Son, Jesus Christ. It is obedience to the Gospel, to the Word of God which has been preached to each one of us and which is presented to us in the prophets and in the Gospel, which fulfills the prophets. It is an obedience of faith because of the Holy Spirit poured forth into each one of our hearts. So it is not something which is unknown to us; it is not something apart from us; it is something within us.
And so we are without excuse. Now, we want to come up with all the excuses and we like to look at Saint Joseph and say, "Well, look at Saint Joseph. He wanted to back away so why should I not want to back away?" The difference is in the reason why. If we recognize the holiness of what we are called to and recognize our own unworthiness, then we have every reason to want to back off. For most of us, that is not the reason why we want to back away. For most of us, it is because we really do not want to do Godís Will. We need to be honest with ourselves. Saint Joseph wanted to do Godís Will and he strove with all his heart to do Godís Will. And once it became clear to him what Godís Will for him was he embraced it with his whole being. That must be the case for each one of us.
We do know Godís Will. Godís Will for you in your day-to-day life is obedience to the duties of your state in life. Godís Will for you is holiness. Godís Will for you is to take up the spiritual life, to spend time Ė serious time Ė every day in prayer. Godís Will for you is union with Jesus Christ. Godís Will for you is detachment from the things of the world Ė and attachment to God. Godís Will for you is to put your heart solely on Christ and strive to serve Him with your whole heart and soul and strength. That is the reason most of us do not want to do it: not because it is holy, but because it will require change, because it will require a radical shift in our lives. But we know the Will of God. And none of us, not a single one of us will be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment and say, "I didnít know." We do know. And we will be held responsible for that.
That is why Saint Paul tells us that we are called to obedience. Not called to do it our way Ė that is the American style: "Iíll decide how the Gospel ought to be lived for myself. I will choose the way that I want to follow Jesus. Iím the one who will make the rules. I will lay out the parameters and decide how this is going to be done." That is not what the Gospel entails. That is not the way of the saints.
We are called into the intimate life of the Holy Family: Jesus, Who is obedient even unto death; Mary, who is obedient in her fiat; Saint Joseph, who is completely obedient in all things that God asked of him. We are called into that family, into that union, and into that intimacy which the three persons of the Holy Family shared Ė and which the three Persons of the Holy Trinity shared. You are called into that intimacy and you are called into that obedience.
When we look at where we started today to see that everything legally had been laid out, that God had laid the foundation for the Birth of His Son, now we bring it all the way back around to each one of us who is a member of that Son, each one of us who shares the life of Jesus Christ and is a member of Jesus Christ. We see now that God once again has laid the foundation for each one of us. Everything has been taken care of legally: We are the sons and daughters of God; we are the sons and daughters of Our Blessed Lady. The Virgin is indeed with child and has borne each one of us. Each one of us, then, has become an adopted son of Saint Joseph as well. And so it is not apart from us. It is not merely a mystery of what took place 2,000 years ago. But what we will celebrate in 2 days is a mystery that must take place in the heart of each one of us because each one of us is a part of that mystery.
God is not apart from us Ė God is with us. He is within us and we are within Him. We are called to holiness and we are called to obedience. God has set everything up for us, so none of us is with excuse. God Himself has called us to the obedience of faith in Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.