4th Sunday of Advent
by Fr. Jack McArdle
GOSPEL : Matthew 1:18-25
Today's gospel sets the scene for the birth of Jesus. Mary was to be married to Joseph. In the meantime, the angel had appeared to Mary, she had said her Yes, and Jesus was already conceived within her womb. Mary was wrapped in mystery, in something she humbly accepted as being from God, and something she herself couldn't possibly understand. Her role, the role of the humble servant, was to obey, and leave it to God to take care of the details. One of those details was how Joseph would react when he heard what had happened. He was a good man, and he was deeply troubled when he discovered that Mary was pregnant. He decided on an honourable course of action, when God stepped in, as Mary expected, and, through the medium of a dream, all Joseph's troubles and fears were resolved. He, too, was humble, and his role was to obey, and accept the directions given him by God.
I spent many years teaching in schools. One of those subjects was swimming, on two afternoons a week. The whole thrust of the exercise was to get the pupils to trust me enough to follow exactly all the instructions I gave. The earlier ones were simple, such as jumping in at the shallow end, holding the bar, kicking their feet, etc. Inevitably, after many visits to the pool, the big test always arrived. The pupil was now at the deep end, clinging to that bar for dear life! Letting go of the bar, and following my instructions, was a very real test of their trust in me, and their faith in themselves. The sheer delight on the face, when someone made it to the other side of the pool, was ample reward for all efforts invested. The reality, of course, was that any one of them could have let go of that bar, and swam the width of the pool the very day they came there. However, they were not ready yet. They still did not have enough faith either in themselves or in me. I was always deeply aware of the many many bars they would have to let go of, during their life-time, as each major decision came up. (Please excuse the pun, but many of them may have found it difficult, if not impossible, to let go of their local bar! I have met a few!).
It is really very difficult for us to know our place before God. I know I speak of the impossible here, but imagine how you would feel if you could actually see yourself placed against the background of an infinite omnipotent God. Even the atom would look like a mountain by comparison with your own sense of nothingness. Humility is truth; that means, accepting things exactly as they are. Pride is frightfully destructive, and its expressions are obnoxious: arrogance, haughtiness, aloofness, disdain, sarcasm, etc., etc. My own father had a habit of correcting us by saying "You don't seem to know your place". I'm sure he was right, but I now ask my heavenly Father, through the action of his Spirit, to ensure that I always know my place.
Mary and Joseph didn't actually do anything. They said their YES, and left the doing to God. Obedience comes from the Latin word obedientia, which, literally means, to hold one's ear against. It was a matter of listening, when one really wanted to know what to do, or which road to take. It was always considered as part of the role of the prophets.
Whenever I think of single mothers, I recall that Mary would have a special place for them in her heart, because she came within a whisker of being one herself. The penalty for that, in her day, was to be stoned to death; so we have come some way from there, thank God. For her, of course, it was a very stark option between trusting the Lord, and facing the consequences, if her trust was misplaced.
If all of this was too much for Mary to understand, what chance have you or me?! In my younger days, it was customary to say a prayer which began with the words "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul". That would be a lovely prayer to repeat, as we move towards the celebration of Christmas.
Speaking of prayers, what is prayer for you? Is it you talking to God, or God talking to you? "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening", or "Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking"? If you don't listen, you'll never know what God wants you to do! If you ask him, be prepared to listen, and you will certainly receive the answer. The organ that God gave me with which to pray is my heart, not my tongue. If my heart is not praying, then my tongue is wasting its time. On several occasions, we are told that "Mary held all these things, and pondered them in her heart." That was where she heard the answers.
Dreams were always accepted as one way through which God spoke to people. The Old Testament is full of examples of such. Without wishing to turn this into a dream workshop, let me put this thesis to you : When you are asleep, when your Ego is off guard, your Inner Child has a chance to let its presence be known, and that, in essence, is what a dream is. All the fears, frustrations, and struggles of that Inner Child are acted out in the dream. Sometimes the Inner Child wakens you up, which is what we call a nightmare, and it usually has to do with running away from something. There can often be things in our lives from which we are running away, or from which we should run away.
Joseph, we are told, was a just man. 'Just' means being fair, treating people properly. One of the best comments I ever heard at a funeral was that "He was a wonderful human being". Justice has lost its edge in today's world. People shouldn't have to fight for their rights. You have rights, even if others prevent you exercising them. How do you weigh on the scales of justice, when you look at your relationships?
Joseph was prepared to go to any lengths to protect Mary from embarrassment. We can be quite destructive in our careless use of words, in starting the rumour, in fuelling the gossip. Can you find one such example from your own life?
Did you hear about the priest who dreamt he was preaching a sermon, and he woke up, and he was?! Even if you fell asleep during this reflection, did you hear anything that you can take into your day, and put it in practice? What does today's gospel say to you today? I'm sure that most of us will probably have at least one meal today, and, perhaps, several snacks. The word of God here today is the nourishment, or the food for our souls, for our inner beings. "Not on bread alone does man/woman live", says Jesus, "but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
The young monk was on his own in the chapel, and he was pouring out his heart to the Lord. He was having some doubts about his vocation. He was, by nature, somewhat insecure, and he was always looking for certainties, or for proof for everything. He kept repeating the same prayer, again and again. "Lord, if I only knew that I would persevere. If I only knew that I would persevere." Finally, the Lord spoke to him, and said "And if you knew for certain that you would persevere, what then would you do? How, then would you live your life? Go and do that now, and begin living your life that way now, and, in doing that, you will persevere".
In the mind, it is only mental assent; in the heart it is faith; and when it gets down into the feet, it becomes faith in action. And that is the kind of faith the Lord is waiting for, and it is in that faith that the presence and power of the Lord is seen, and experienced......
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And That's The Gospel Truth copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.