Sunday Sermon for December 22, 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

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

In these final days of preparation prior to celebrating our Lord’s birth from the Virgin Mary, we meet several mysteries which require our faith and our praise.  The first is the Prophet Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would conceive and bear a son whom she would name Emmanuel, God with us.  We must first note that the Hebrew word used in this passage is almah which is normally translated as “young woman.”  However, the context suggests something infinitely greater.  God told Ahaz to ask for a sign.  It could be anything: as high as the sky or as deep as the netherworld.  When Ahaz refuses to ask, God declares that He will give a sign.

Since it is normal for babies to be born of young women, that would not constitute much of a sign, especially one as high as the sky or deep as the netherworld.  The Rabbis clearly recognized this and, when they translated the Old Testament into Greek, they used the word for virgin instead of the word for young woman.  This is why St. Matthew, who wrote his Gospel in Greek, quotes Isaiah stating: “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”  So, we have this extraordinary sign of a child being born from a virgin which has happened only once in history.

In the Gospel we are not only presented with the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah, but we are also brought into the anguish of St. Joseph as he struggles to properly respond to the mystery of the Incarnation.  First, we must note that St. Joseph is the third human person, after our Lady and St. Elizabeth (and maybe Zechariah), to have knowledge of the Incarnation.  Second, we must recall that betrothal is not an engagement; betrothal is marriage.  In Galilee at the time of St. Joseph it was customary to marry, but wait a period of time before the woman moved in with the man.  The marriage would not be consummated until the woman was living in her husband’s house.  This is why the Angel speaks of Mary as Joseph’s wife and why Joseph is contemplating divorce.

Knowing the holiness of our Blessed Lady, there is no real possibility for us to think St. Joseph may have thought our Lady had been unfaithful.  The humility of St. Joseph was so great, that he may have thought it presumptuous to marry our Blessed Lady when he learned she was with child.  God had chosen this woman for Himself, so St. Joseph was willing, out of charity and humility, to back away, knowing himself to be unworthy of being part of something so holy.  This is why the Angel directs him to bring our Lady into his home. 

The faith and obedience of St. Joseph provide a great example to all of us.  He acts immediately upon the direction of the Angel and, by Jewish law, at the moment our Lady crossed the threshold of St. Joseph’s home, the Child in her womb was legally became St. Joseph’s child.  Our Lord now has legal standing not only as the son of Joseph, but also as a son of David.  Both of Jesus’ parents were from the tribe of Judah and both were descended from King David.  Thus, the promise God made to David is also fulfilled and Jesus is now King forever. 

These mysteries are wonderful, indeed, as St. Paul mentions in the second reading, the mystery of the Incarnation leads to the mystery of the death and resurrection of our Lord.   Jesus is God from all eternity, He is God at the moment of the Incarnation, but the “proof” for St. Paul is in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead in which he says Jesus is “established as the Son of God in power…”  Jesus did not become the Son of God, because He was so from all eternity, but He demonstrated His divinity by destroying death and rising to new life.

All these mysteries and the beautiful example of faith, charity, and obedience shown to us by our Lady and St. Joseph (and, of course, the humility, charity, and obedience of Jesus in the Incarnation) point the way to what is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.  St. Paul refers to this mystery in the second reading when he speaks of the “obedience of faith” of the Gentiles. 

Our Lord has called us, just as He called His human parents.  This should cause some real soul searching on our part.  Why has God called me?  How important is this gift to me?  What is my response?  This is a mystery which requires the response of faith, and a disposition of praise and gratitude.  Like St. Joseph we know our unworthiness, but we must obey and receive Jesus and Mary into the home of our hearts.

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