December 19, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 7:10-14) Reading II (Romans 1:1-7)
Gospel (St. Matthew 1:18-24)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear one of the most well known passages in all of Scripture and yet one of the most extraordinary. Here we have the prophet Isaiah being sent by God to King Ahaz, who was a pretty unfortunate soul to say the least. He was the king in Israel who had done many, many, many, bad things and led the Israelite people into all kinds of sin. Suddenly, this man who had done so much against God is doubting, and God sends the prophet to be able to say to him, “Ask for any sign, whatever it is that you want, as high as the sky, as deep as the netherworld; make it as ridiculous as you want to make it, make it as extraordinary as you want, just go ahead and ask for anything and I will prove to you that I am real.” Suddenly, this horrendously sinful man becomes real pious: “I will not tempt the Lord – I’ll sin against Him all day long, but I’m not going to tempt Him.” And so the Lord Himself gives a sign, a sign that is so extraordinary it could not be missed by anyone, that a virgin shall be with child and will bear a son and they will name him Emmanuel.
Now this prophecy is really just a repeat of the very first prophecy in the very first promise that is contained in Scripture. If you go all the way back to Genesis 3:15, to the passage that is called the Protoevangelium (that means “The First Gospel”) where we are told that there will be enmity between the serpent and the woman, between her seed and his, and that she would crush his vile head, in this prophecy we hear that there is one woman who is going to give birth to one son. But the extraordinary nature of this prophecy is we are told that the seed of the woman is going to be at enmity in this way with the seed of Satan. What is so extraordinary about this is that if you really look at it carefully you recognize it is telling us that it has to be without a male; once again, it is a virgin who is to give birth. What is particularly extraordinary about this is that medicine up until very recently did not even realize the woman had an egg because they could not see it. We are told “the seed of the woman” – but a woman does not have seed, and yet this is exactly what God tells us is going to happen. This would be completely mind-boggling for people especially of the Old Testament times because they would not be able to understand how this could be possible. And so we see God presenting to us the truth of things, even though it was beyond human reason to be able to understand until fairly recently. The fact that a virgin would give birth is still beyond anyone’s understanding because it is completely contrary to nature, but this is exactly what God told us was going to be.
We see further what this son who is the offspring of the woman is going to be like. Saint Paul, in the second reading, tells us that he is descended from the flesh according to David. God had also made promises to David that one of his sons would sit upon the throne, so this is the exact same person who is being spoken of. When we look in the Gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, we see the genealogy of Jesus and it comes down to Saint Joseph. And we see in the Gospel reading today the story that we all know so well of the conception of our Blessed Lord and how it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that Our Lady conceived, in fulfillment (as Saint Matthew makes very clear) of the prophecy of Isaiah.
Yet we see something else that is happening: The angel tells Saint Joseph not to fear to take Mary as his wife. Just ponder that for a moment. It would be pretty evident to anyone why he would be a little afraid. Not for one split-second did Saint Joseph think that Our Lady had been unfaithful to him. He knew her holiness; they had already agreed that theirs would be a virginal marriage. It was the realization that what was happening inside of this extraordinary woman was so holy that Saint Joseph recognized his own unworthiness to be involved in this mystery. But Saint Joseph’s involvement was absolutely essential because according to Jewish law the moment that a man would accept a woman as his wife and she would step over the threshold of his home the child within her would by law be adopted by that man. So at the moment Saint Joseph received our Blessed Lady into his home, the Child within her womb legally became his child. Biologically, of course, Our Lord was not the child of Saint Joseph; but legally He became the child of Joseph, so He could truly be legally called “the son of the carpenter.” He was indeed, then, a son of David. He was also a son of David through Our Lady. Today, Judaism is what is known as a matriarchal society; if your mother is Jewish then you are Jewish, but if your mother is not then you are not. But in the ancient world it was still a patriarchal society, and therefore the fact of having to have a father who was descended from David was essential for Our Lord.
Why is this so important? What the Church is giving us these readings for today is to demonstrate the truth of the humanity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God from all eternity. He is a divine person from all eternity Who took to Himself our human nature. There are some who would like to say, “Because He is God, being human is beneath His dignity, so He didn’t really become a human being.” If Jesus did not become fully human, then we are not redeemed. There are some who would like to say, “He did not take on a human soul, just a human body.” If that is the case, then our souls have not been saved. There are some who would say, “He took on a human soul, but certainly not a human body. He just made it look like He had a body, but He really didn’t.” That means our bodies have no part of redemption. The reality is that He became fully human. He is not a human person – He is a divine person – and because He is a divine person that cannot change. The Second Person of the Trinity took to Himself a human nature, a human soul and a human body with human blood flowing through His veins. That is why in the Eucharist we talk about the Body, the Blood, the Soul, and the Divinity of Christ, because it is the fullness of the person of Jesus Christ.
Now as we look at this extraordinary mystery of the Incarnation of Our Lord, we recognize also that as God He has no beginning and He will have no end. Yet, because He took a human nature to Himself, in His humanity He has a beginning. He became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He created her so that He could become created in her. As God, of course, He is uncreated; but, in His humanity, He has a created nature. He did not need to have a mother (and as God He does not have a mother), but because God decreed from all eternity that His Son would become man and would be born of a woman, it became necessary because it was the Will of God. Our Lord humbled Himself to share in our humanity in every way, to begin as the tiniest little baby in His mother’s womb and to be born of a woman. In this way, it helps each one of us to be able to see that we have been incorporated into the mystery of the Incarnation, because in Baptism we become members of Jesus Christ. Jesus, Who is God from all eternity, takes on our human nature; in Baptism, we, who are human by nature, take on the divine nature. As the saints have told us: God became man so that man could become God. Not that we become God per se, but rather we become partakes, as Saint Peter tells us, of the divine nature. We share in His nature as He has humbled Himself to share in ours; the difference being that His is a substantial union and ours is not. Nonetheless, it is a real participation in the divinity of Christ.
Our Lord, in taking on our humanity, has come into this world to save us from our sins; but, in His mercy and generosity, that was not enough for Him. He did not just take away our sins, but He elevated us to a divine level, which means we have the capacity to act as divine beings, that is, to act in a divine manner. Not that we are ever going to be God (again, we cannot), but because we share in His divinity we can act the way Jesus did, we can continue to live the life of Jesus even now. And so the Church gives us these readings right before Christmas so as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Birth of Our Lord into this world that we will meditate deeply and profoundly upon this mystery of the Incarnation, that we will consider the reality of Who Jesus Christ is, not only in His divinity but particularly in His humanity, and that we will recognize the miracle of Who He is in His birth, the miracle beyond the normal miracle of every child who is conceived and born, the absolute and extraordinary miracle of God becoming man, of a virgin being a mother, of a woman having seed, of Him being of the flesh according to David because of a father who was not part of His conception.
As you meditate upon these things in this upcoming week, ponder also the reality that is you, that is, the reality that you are part of this mystery, that you have been incorporated into the Incarnation, and that you are invited by Our Lord to share in this glorious mystery. That is your dignity. As He humbled Himself to become one of us, He has exalted us to become part of Himself. This mystery of the Incarnation and of the Birth of Our Lord is not something that we merely look at from a distance of two thousand years and hold at an arm’s length, but rather it is something into which each one of us is fully incorporated. It is something of which we are a part, and it tells us the very essence of the dignity and reality of who we are. So use this last week to prepare your hearts, your souls, for the birth of our Savior. But recognize the reality, not only of Who He is, but of who you are and of your invitation to enter into and to be part of the very mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.