Sunday Sermon for December 18, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

Readings: Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24

In the second reading today St. Paul says that he was made an Apostle in order to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of the Name of Jesus. It is this obedience to which every single person on earth is called. However, we must make an important distinction: obedience is not mere subjection or submission. This is the Muslim idea of obedience: just submit and do not ask questions. This is because they see themselves as slaves, in the negative sense of that word, to a God who can make any demand and they must carry it out.

As Christians we can talk about a sense of slavery as well, but it is a freely chosen slavery of love. When you love someone, you are willing to serve that person, not because you are forced, but because you have made a free choice. In the same way, we are obedient to God because we love Him. This, too, is based on our free choice. What is most important for us to understand is that God is asking us to love in return for the love He has given to us. In other words, as St. Paul points out in his Letter to the Philippians, Jesus took the form of a slave and was obedient even to death on a cross.

God has made a free choice to love us, but now we have to choose to receive His love and then love Him in return. So, He serves us and we serve Him. He is not asking us to do something He is unwilling to do, nor will he treat us in a way that violates our human dignity by forcing us to do something against our free will.

This whole concept becomes critical for our salvation. At every step we see the freedom of the persons who are involved. As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s birth, we hear about our Lady and St. Joseph. If we read the story of the Annunciation, we will notice that Mary is not told that she would be the Mother of God and that she must submit because this is God’s choice. No, she is invited to be the Mother of God and the Incarnation takes place only after her free consent. This as a great act of love for God and for us, but it was also an act of the obedience of faith.

In the Gospel reading today we hear about St. Joseph. First we see his great love for God and for our Lady. There is never an issue in St. Joseph’s mind that Mary was unfaithful. He knew of her virtue and her holiness; they had entered into a marriage that would remain unconsummated. There is no way he thought that she was doing something sinful. Instead, out of reverence for the mystery that was unfolding in the immaculate womb of Blessed Mary, St. Joseph was willing to back away, thinking himself completely unworthy to be part of this work of God.

We can say this because we are told Joseph was a righteous man but unwilling to expose Mary to the law. If he is truly righteous, and if he thought his wife was unfaithful, he would automatically turn her over to the law. The fact that he did not tells us that he did not think our Lady violated her vows. The determination to obtain a divorce was the means by which he could remove himself from a situation in which he did not think he belonged. However, after the Angel appears to him, he is willing to reverse his course and remain an integral part of the holy mystery which had been revealed to him.

Notice, once again, that Joseph was not ordered to take Mary as his wife. He is informed about the situation and that it is God’s will for him to be a part of this plan; he did not hesitate. Out of love for God and for our Lady Joseph moved forward to the second phase of marriage as it was in Galilee at that time and took Mary into his home. All of this, once again, an act of obedience of faith.

Now it is our turn. This same mystery that had first been revealed to Mary and Joseph has now been presented to us. While most of us have known it from our youth, the question has to do with our obedience of faith and our response to love. We are not as righteous as Mary and Joseph, but we are still asked to respond. The obedience of faith is not merely to accept the truth, but to act upon it. Open your heart, receive God’s love for you and freely choose to place yourself at His service.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit