4th Sunday of Advent

18th December

The first reading is a small part of a story loosely based on an event in the history of the Jews (in the second book of Kings) around 733 BC. The story tells of Aram and Ephraim (namely, Syria and Israel) in the north, joining together against Judah in the south, to try to force an alliance of the three as a defense against the threat of the Assyrian empire in the east. In Judah in the south, the prophet Isaiah has told its King, Ahaz, that he should trust God to defend his people and not worry; God even offers the king a sign to show His support, but Ahaz turns the offer down. Like a very understanding and caring negotiator, God will give him, and his court, a sign anyway, which is our first reading (Isaiah 7:10-14). The message is delivered through Isaiah, God’s spokesman; “Look,” he says “that young marriageable girl there. She will become pregnant and produce a son whom she will call Emmanuel (God’s with us)” – the name is significant because people often gave their children names that express something about their situation or hopes, so Emmanuel might mean that by the time of the birth, the people will feel sure that ‘God is with them’.   In fact Ahaz called upon the emperor of Assyria to help him, rather than rely on God; so Judah was safe, at least for the time being and the two northern kingdoms were beaten by the Assyrians. This story raises the question of how to proceed in life’s difficulties; whether to trust God or to take evasive or defensive action oneself; but it also points to hope and belief that one day God will be with the people in a reassuring way – with us.

In the second reading (Romans 1:1-7) we have the opening address of the great exposition of the way that Paul saw the good news arising from Christ (the ‘gospel’ according to Paul). In conformity with letter-writing custom we would expect it to read “Paul, to all God’s beloved in Rome, grace and peace.” But in his letters Paul usually elaborates on this, and here we have the longest introduction of all his letters and its just one sentence in the original Greek. Of himself he says he is a worker with a remit and a special role – a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and appointed to deliver the good news. Paul has not visited the Romans yet and wants to reassure them of his credentials, and so adds a reference to an early creedal formula which they will most likely know – the good news is that through His human nature Jesus is descended from David, and by God’s Spirit has been revealed as Son of God at his resurrection. Paul wants to emphasize that he has a call from God to work with Gentiles – the majority of the Christians in Rome would come under that designation. He ends with the customary Greek salutation (here translated as grace, but meaning ‘rejoice’) and the traditional Jewish wish of Shalom (peace). It speaks to us, because we can both rejoice and have a deep inner peace because of the reality that we celebrate at Christmas.

Matthew’s infancy narrative is well structured and begins with a genealogy in three sections highlighting Jesus’ connections through Joseph, with Abraham, David and the Jews in exile in Babylon. This is followed by five sections that recount the birth, the magi, the trip to Egypt, the slaughter of babies and the return to Nazareth, each ending with a quotation fulfilled. In this whole section , Joseph plays an important role and echoes the Old Testament Joseph (the one with the coat of many colours) whose life was threatened by his brothers and who ended up in Egypt, he was the person who had meaningful dreams and his descendants, the Jews, eventually settled in the land where Jesus was born. In our gospel this day the story is of Mary betrothed to Joseph when he finds she is expecting. He doesn’t want to cause a fuss and has decided to separate quietly, but then has a dream and an assurance from an angel and the saviour is born to the couple. The section ends with the fulfillment quotation found in our first reading,. This context tells us that God’s way with the world is consistent throughout history; the story of the Jews from the time of Abraham, though the birth of Jesus is a definite and distinctive instance of this and a decisive step towards the fulfillment of God’s creation of a perfect world.

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