The gospel in the third week of Advent finds John the Baptist in prison sending his disciples to check on Jesus. They question him: Are you the one? Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for? Jesus did not answer saying yes, rather he just showed them what he was doing: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Interesting way of responding to John, as he had preached—as we read last Sunday—that Jesus’ baptism was going to be one of mission. What we ‘do’ is who we ‘are.’ So, again, it is about mission, and individuals and communities will have to discern whether or not we are preaching good news to the poor and who are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead in their context.
The gospel in the fourth week of Advent takes us to Matthew’s take on what we call the “infancy narratives.” Only Matthew and Luke have anything on Jesus’ infancy. Luke’s stories and imagery have become the more popular ones—shepherds, stars, etc.—but I find Matthew’s take as compelling, and perhaps more theologically compelling. If Mary provides the “human facilitator” in Luke, Joseph plays that role in Matthew. This gospel shows the incredible transformation Joseph goes through.
When Mary is found with child, Joseph had three options—clearly delineated in the gospel. The first option was to do what was expected of him, and he would have been totally justified by the Law: repudiate Mary, divorce her publicly, with public shame (and worse) for this young woman. Joseph had a second option, which he intended to follow. Joseph was righteous, but a good person, so he had already decided to divorce Mary quietly. This second option is better than the first, but certainly not yet enough for God’s plan to take place. But it is because he was a good person that God can intervene to transform Joseph’s goodness into holiness. From righteous, to “good,” to holy—and to be holy, to take the holy choice is Joseph’s call and actually ours, too.
Let me tell you that while I was thinking about this in preparation for the weekend I received Archbishop Listecki’s Christmas gift—which is always a book. I am not special, he sends a book to all the priests of the Archdiocese. If a priest of the Archdiocese publishes a book during the year, that will be the book he will gift to us. He sent a great one this time around. The book is about preaching, written by my preacher teacher at the Seminary, Fr. Joseph Juknialis. In the book, he identifies nine ingredients that should be present in any homily, and each element becomes a chapter. Chapter nine connects with what we were discussing above: The preacher assumes the congregation is made up of good people. I agree, but as we see in this gospel, good does not cut it. As Fr. Juknialis also says, the preacher’s job is to help good people (including self) into becoming (or at least trying to become) holy.
We all can look at the decisions we are presented with in our lives and identify the three options. The one that counts on society’s blessings, the one that keep us afloat but sinks someone else, the “righteous” choice. Then we can identify the “good” option: it is not a bad one, it does some good, it does not hurt anybody, it actually helps someone, but it may not really solve a problem. With prayer, and allowing God’s intervention, we may also identify the “holy” option. For instance, our relationship with the poor. The first option, ignore them or even chastise them and shame them. The second option, some nice gesture, perhaps a donation—you see? Not bad, it is a nice gesture, many of us do that during the year, especially these days. But obviously, the holy option is also there—and it would take much more effort. The same pattern could be applied to choices on raising children, dealing with a spouse, stewardship, etc.
God short-circuited Joseph’s decision-making process through a dream. God wants to do that for us, too. He will help us—through a prayer that listens, through events, through people—to go from good to great, from good to holy. He will come to us, as He did on the first Christmas as a Child.