What’s in a Name?
Fourth Sunday of Advent (A) | Fr Gregory Murphy looks at the fundamental choice that confronts Joseph and each of us.
Matthew in today’s gospel calls our attention to the names given to Jesus – names which focus our attention on this child’s role in the history of God’s acting to save his people: Jesus, which the Evangelist glosses as “the one who is to save his people from their sins”; and Emmanuel, which, echoing Isaiah’s prophecy, we’re told means “God-is-with-us”. We are, then, assured that God comes to us to save us from our sins – to rebuild the communion between heaven and earth, to open for humankind once more the way into sharing God’s life, a life that transcends our merely human limits and living. And it is important that we realise, echoing the jubilee year of mercy just ended, that God comes to us as we are, not as we’d like to be: in all our frailties, imperfections, hurts received and inflicted, our anger, shame and bitterness, in short in our estrangement from God and each other we call ‘sin’. God comes to us as we are, to heal us and bring us into his peace. So, as Paul reminds the nascent churches in Rome, we too are called to holiness through the grace and mission we have received from the Son through the Spirit, called to live in holiness in honour of his name, called to be saints, manifesting God’s grace and peace through the manner of our lives.
God is with us, God comes to us in a manner long expected and hoped for yet in a manner that could scarcely have been anticipated. The God who makes things new begins his salvation of humankind from its self-inflicted shipwreck in an entirely unforeseen way. Joseph, in the annunciation he receives in a dream from the angel – echoing the true dreaming of his patriarchal namesake in the book of Genesis – is told not to be afraid, a note that resounds time and again in the gospels when Jesus demonstrates his divine power, but challenged rather to respond positively to God’s saving, surprising act, to take his wife to his home. He does so, despite his fears, his injured pride, his entirely reasonable suspicion, in human terms, that his betrothed had betrayed him.
It is useful to compare Joseph’s response to God’s creative act with the example in Isaiah’s prophecy in our first reading. At first glance, we might assume that Ahaz is acting out of piety, for it was a long tradition in Israel that one should not put the Lord to the test. But this was a confrontation between prophet and king; a confrontation which demonstrates where the hearts of each sought salvation. Isaiah, as the prophet of God, has given an assurance to the king that faith in God will save, even in a political crisis. Ahaz has been warned that only this will save his kingdom of Judah from his enemies in the North, the kingdom of Israel and the far more threatening power of the Assyrians. Now, in a defiant challenge to the king, the prophet invites him to ask for a sign, to test whether the prophet speaks God’s truth. Ahaz evades the issue, because he does not want to subject his policies and stratagems to the claims of faith, of belief in God and God’s commandments, because he wants to preserve his autonomy. And that brings him to disaster, signalled by the oracle he is given; the oracle spoken by the prophet of “my God”, no longer the God of Ahaz, for he has in effect rejected God, abandoned his ways. Ahaz’ example can be uncomfortably close to our manner of living in the present – do we listen for God’s voice and respond, as Joseph did, even when it seems extraordinarily challenging, even foolish; or do we cling to our own stratagems, our cunning plans, which will likely bring us, eventually, to disaster?
Yet the hope that the promised child brings is not so easily lost. Matthew begins his gospel with the assurance that God is with us, Emmanuel; and closes it with the promise of the Risen Lord to his disciples just before he in his humanity ascends fully to God’s presence “know that I am with you always, yes, to the close of the age”. In confidence then that God is with us, might we risk loving each other as Jesus, Emmanuel, showed us is possible?
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window in the Rosary Shrine (St Dominic’s Priory church) in London.