Friday, December 18, 2009

Behold, The Days Are Coming When I Will Raise Up To David A Righteous Branch

FRIDAY of the THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT -- December 18, 2009

Reading 1             Jeremiah 23:5-8

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up to David a righteous branch; a King who will reign wisely, and do what is just and right in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD our Righteousness.

So then, the days will come, says the LORD, when people will no longer say, “As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt”; but rather, “As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up from the land of the north, and from all the lands to which I banished them; once again they will live in their own land.”

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Today’s First Reading is a portion of one of three prose poems that originate either from the time of the exile in Babylon, or soon after the return to Jerusalem. In earlier prophecies, the rulers of Judah had been scolded for scattering God’s people; here, the LORD promises to establish “a righteous branch” of David’s line over a restored Israel. “Branch” is used elsewhere as a messianic title. Zerubbabel, whose name means “branch of Babylon”, one of the leaders of the return of the Jews from exile, was a descendant of David.

The Messiah, unlike any previous descendant of David, will be the ideal King. He will sum up in himself all of the finest qualities of the best rulers, and infinitely more. He will rule as a real king before the Lord, not as a puppet like Zedekiah. He will be a good shepherd for his people, free from the corruption of so many of the rulers of Judah. He will be “wise, and do what is just and right in the land.”

This ruler will be called “Yahweh is our justice” in contrast with the current ruler, Zedekiah, whose name meant “Yahweh is my justice”. It was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who gave this name to Mattaniah when he was appointed king. Zedekiah was the last king of Judah before the exile (597-587 BC). A tragic figure, he tried to form alliances with the surrounding peoples, including Egypt, to rebel against Babylon, but he suffered defeat and was led off to Babylon as a captive. There, his two sons were executed before his eyes, and then his eyes were gouged out.

Even though Zedekiah did not in any wise live up to his name “the Lord is my Justice” the new Lord of Justice will bring many blessings to his people, and give them all that they will need to truly be God’s people.

A new age is coming, when people will no longer think of God as the one who brought his people out of Egypt. Rather, they will think of him as the one who brought his people from their place of exile to live once again in the Land of Promise. This will be the “New Exodus”, one of even greater significance than the first. And it will not be fulfilled until the Messiah comes to establish the Kingdom of God not only in Israel, but throughout the world. He will bring justice and peace to all peoples.

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Responsorial          Psalm 72

R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
He shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.

R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.

R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous deeds.
And blessed forever be his glorious name;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory.

R. Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

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Gospel                   Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: When his mother Mary was betrothed, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. This was his intention when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary into your home as your wife, since it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means, ‘God is with us’.

When Joseph awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and to Mary into his home as is wife. But he had no relations with her until she born a son, whom he named Jesus.

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Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately upon yesterday’s account of Jesus’ genealogy.

In Jesus’ time, there were three stages for Jews getting married: first, the engagement, then the betrothal, and finally, the wedding. The betrothal was a serious commitment, a legally binding relationship. Conjugal relations were not licit until some months later, when the husband took his betrothed into his home as his wife. Violating the betrothal by having sexual relations with someone else was equivalent to adultery.

Imagine, then, the horrific dilemma of Joseph, who has discovered that the woman to whom he is betrothed, but with whom he has not consummated the conjugal relationship is already with child. There is only one obvious explanation: she has been unfaithful, and was bearing another man’s child. This was a gravely serious matter, and if brought into the open, would have made Mary liable to death by stoning.

As a devout follower of the Mosaic Law, Joseph would want to end his commitment to a woman who had so seriously broken the Law. And yet, because he was “a righteous man”, he was unwilling to expose her to such a shameful punishment. In this, for his time and for our own, he shows unusual forbearance. Not many men would accept this situation with such calmness and self-restraint. Most would find it an unforgivable insult to their own manhood.

Joseph’s ultimate decision was “to divorce her quietly”. This was his intention when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, assuring him that no other man is involved, and that “it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived.” Joseph is further instructed to give the child to be born the name Jesus. Jesus, in Hebrew Joshua, means “Yahweh saves”; Jesus is so called “because he will save his people from their sins.”

As Matthew often does, he shows that “all this took place to fulfill what the Lord has said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”. This prophecy will be re-echoed at the very end of Matthew’s gospel, when, just before he ascends to the Father, Jesus says to his disciples. “I will be with you all days, until the end of the age.” Jesus remains with us forever.

His peace of mind restored, Joseph “took his wife into his home, and had no relations with her before she bore a son, whom he named Jesus.” Thus, there can be no mistaking the origins of Jesus, son of Mary. He has a human mother, but a divine Father. He is the perfect Savior of his people, capable of offering his own life as ransom for his sinful brothers and sisters, because he shares their human nature; worth to offer atonement to God, because he is the eternally begotten Son of the Father.

Jesus is, yesterday, today and forever, our Emmanuel: God still lives with his people. He does so through the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church and its communities throughout the world. Each of us is called to be Emmanuel. Through us others can meet God, and hear the good news of salvation and love, of forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us each renew our personal commitment to be Emmanuel for all those whose lives we touch, today and every day.


Sarah in the tent said...

Joseph's righteousness made him afraid to take Mary into his house, because he could see that she was now someone else's wife. The Old Testament has many dire warnings about the eternal consequences of sleeping with another man's wife. Prostitutes are far preferrable to other men's wives. Joseph was afraid he might be sinning against God and man by taking Mary into his house.

How could he quietly put away a girl who was already pregnant? It would be a public scandal. Maybe he was planning to say that the child was his (to protect Mary) but that, having jumped the gun so to speak, he had changed his mind about the wedding (to protect his immortal soul). A man was entitled to divorce his wife, after all.

Many Christians believe that Mary and Joseph had normal marital relations after Jesus' birth. I think that a righteous man like Joseph, who believed and acted on the messages he received from God regarding Jesus' conception, would have seen Mary as someone else's wife whom he touched at his peril.

It's strange how the shadow of adultery hangs over this first part of the Gospel, because adultery is such a metaphor for lack of faithfulness to the one true God.

I'm off to the mountains. Happy Christmas, Father!

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Joseph's righteousness is responsible for his "fear", because at the same time, he knew that he was not the father of Mary's child, and he knew that Mary was a virtuous young woman.

Joseph knew that, according the the Law of Moses, a man who was betrothed to his wife, but not yet married to her, had several options. He could denounce her as an adulteress, and she would be stoned to death at the town gates. He could acknowlege the child as his own, and wedding plans would go forward. He could divorce her quietly, and she would be sent to the district near the town gates, where she would live with her child as if she were a widow.

As Matthew tells us in today's gospel, Joseph was seriously considering the last of these options when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him, and told him that it was not by another man, but by the power of the Holy Spirit that the child had been conceived (Matthew 1:20).

Those who believe that Mary and Joseph had normal relations after the birth of Jesus probably also believe that Joseph was the father of Jesus, which suggests that they have never read -- or do not understand -- Matthew 1:20. Acting on the message he received from God regarding Jesus' conception, Joseph would have seen Mary as worthy of the respect and homage due to the woman chosen as God's spouse, and the mother of the Messiah. His attitude was certainly one of awe, but there was no threat of peril -- after all, he had been chosen as the Messiah's foster-father and guardian.