4A Fourth Sunday of Advent
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Matthew 11:2-11
An unmarried woman! An unplanned pregnancy! An implausible explanation! It’s not hard to imagine what others were saying and thinking.
“Did you hear? Mary’s pregnant. I never expected this of a girl like her. Mary and Joseph should know better. They aren’t even married yet.” “Well, I heard that Joseph’s not even the father. How could she do that to him? He is such a good and just man. Who is the father? They say that Joseph still intends to take her as his wife. He’s going to marry her after all this.” “This whole affair is a disgrace. She and her love child should be stoned. The law requires it.”
We can be sure Joseph heard the whispers and saw the looks, if not in the streets of the village, then certainly in his own imagination. Joseph is no fool. He knows that this is a scandal. He knows that there are questions of faithfulness. The love child in Mary’s womb proves that.
By the light of day, it all seems quite clear. Joseph will get up in the morning and do what he knows he must do. He will quietly send Mary away. However, what appears to be one thing in the light of public scrutiny becomes something else in the silence of the night, in the listening, in the waiting and in the dreaming.
Yes, this is most certainly a scandal. But it is not a scandal of imagined sexual immorality. The real scandal is that the One whose name cannot be spoken; the invisible, almighty, immortal one; the transcendent one – is with us. We thought that God was up there above, or out there beyond, or maybe somewhere in the unavailable future.
But then Mary got pregnant. The scandal of that pregnancy is that God, far from being remote, is immediately and intimately present. God’s holy spirit fills the womb of Mary. The wind of God is blowing through her life.
The breath of God is so real in her that she begins to show like the pregnant woman she is. The unspeakable and unimaginable scandal is that humanity can become pregnant with divinity, that humanity can become pregnant with God.
Yes, Mary’s pregnancy raises questions of faithfulness. But it is not the usual question or accusation of betrayal and infidelity. Rather this pregnancy is a statement of God’s faithfulness to His promise and a fulfillment of His commitment to His people.
In this pregnancy God renews all the covenants of sacred history and once again, yet in a manner as never before, chooses us to be His people. God’s continuing promise to show up and to live, in the midst of our lives, is fulfilled in Mary’s pregnancy. This pregnancy is faithfulness in, with and through the flesh.
Yes, the child in Mary’s womb is a love child. But here love child is not a euphemism for illegitimate – in times past the designation of a child born to unmarried parents. No, this child is the revelation of God’s awesome love for humanity. Love that can be seen, heard, and touched. This embodied love of God will feed and nourish God’s people.
Joseph’s daytime resolution to quietly dismiss Mary has given way to a night of dreaming, pondering, and wrestling. Joseph’s view of Mary, her pregnancy, and his view, even of himself, has been opened and enlarged. He has begun to see this situation, this scandalous pregnancy, through the eyes of faith rather than the stares of the villagers. Mary’s story and the angel’s words now speak louder than the villagers’ voices.
The only reason this could happen is because Joseph entrusted himself to the night, to the inner world where angels appear, guide, and speak God’s word and convey His message.
The night of faith shows reality to be more than the daytime dramas with which we often live. It is the place where God speaks the truth about us and sees more than we sometimes see for ourselves. It is the night of Emmanuel. Joseph experienced God with him. He found holiness hidden, where it has always been hidden, in plain sight amongst the scandals, the talk, the looks, the stares, the questions and the doubts.
And so, Joseph awoke in the morning and did what he had to do. He began emptying himself.
He let go of fear.
He let go of the villagers’ voices and stares.
He let go of the judgments of others.
He let go of his doubts and questions.
He let go of his own reputation and standing in the community.
He let go of his ideas and hopes for what his marriage to Mary could have been.
He let go of the law and punishment.
With each letting go Joseph emptied himself so that, by God’s grace and mercy, he might become the womb that would protect, nourish, and provide security for Mary and her child.
He would be the womb that sheltered Mary and Jesus from Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents. He would be the womb that safely took Jesus and Mary to Egypt. He would be the womb that sustained their lives in that land. He would be the womb that brought them back to Nazareth when the time was right.
Isn’t that what wombs do? They are the place where life is created and sustained, nourished, and grown. They offer security and protection. They are that deep interior place where God’s love and breath meet and unite with ours to create something beautiful and sacred. The womb Joseph offered was as important as the womb Mary offered. Even as God was acting in Mary’s womb to create new life, so God was acting in Joseph’s womb to sustain that life.
At one level today’s gospel is about Mary and Joseph but at another level it is about you and me. It is about our becoming more open and receptive, more womb-like in this final week of Advent so that we too might give birth to God’s Son in our time and in our culture.
Joseph guides us to Christmas reminding us that before a womb can be filled it must be empty. He invites us to enter the night of faith and to begin emptying ourselves of all that keeps our womb closed. We must let go of all those things that make our wombs inaccessible. Things like fear, guilt, resentment, and anger, the villagers’ voices and stares, the thoughts that say we are not enough, the doubts of God’s presence, the isolation and the loneliness of loss and sorrow. His letting go of all this, created space, openness and opportunity for God.
Over and over, we let go, emptying ourselves until we find that we are nothing and have nothing. That nothingness is our empty womb offered with scandalous faith: that it will be filled by God, that we will be re-created, that the world will hear the good news, and that once again we will discover God is with us and within us.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
December 18, 2022