Two models for living the faith offer a very clear choice

By: By Msgr. Albert W. Hallin

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 22

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-2,3-4,5-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

Take a look at the men who speak and act in the readings today: Isaiah, King Ahaz, Paul, the Angel, Joseph. Each one has a role to play in God’s drama of our salvation. Certainly the key players in this cast are Ahaz and Joseph.

Ahaz is a new low in corrupt rulers. He has just enough Hebrew faith to make him superstitious. Everything you can say about a small, cunning, cruel, and dangerous-because-he’s-stupid man, you can say about Ahaz.

We meet him at one of his worst, cringing low points: the imminent destruction of him and his kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians. In desperate straits, he decides to consult God by way of his erstwhile critic, the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah calls on what little faith remains in Ahaz. “Ask for a sign!” is met with the pious humility of a Uriah Heep: “Oh no! Not little ol’ me! Ask for a sign from God? Heavens! I couldn’t!”

What he’s really saying is that if he gets personally involved in dealing with God, he might have to change his way of thinking and, eventually, his lifestyle. He might have to live up to the expectations of a Hebrew king — a descendant of David.

Then we meet Joseph. Obedient, he is going to marry the girl whom his father had picked out years before. That’s the way obedient sons do things!

He is also religious — he wants to follow the dictates of Mosaic Law. He wants to follow the customs of his people and fulfill the obligations of the marriage law of his culture. He is prepared to complete the marriage arrangements of their fathers and bring Mary into his home.

Another word to describe Joseph is “sensitive.” Filled with dismay at learning of Mary’s pregnancy, yet losing no faith in her integrity, he is ready to take the blame for breaking the relationship. He will refuse to complete the marriage ceremony, return the dowry with damages, and step aside. To him it is obvious that Mary is involved in something wonderful that does not involve him, and he will not stand in her way.

When he meets the heavenly spokesman, however, he does not put on a show of false piety and insincere humility. Joseph does what he is told and steps into his role as the perceived father of Jesus.

ARTICULATE IN SILENCE
And then there’s Mary. Matthew is at pains to tell us of the teaching of Jesus’ birth from a virgin mother: “His mother, Mary, engaged to Joseph and before they came to live together (before the completion of the Jewish marriage custom of taking the betrothed into a man’s own home), was found to be with child.” In the line beyond where our Gospel today stops, Matthew says, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son.”

Mary is so articulate by her presence, though she says not a word! She is also obedient, religious, sensitive, docile — the same virtues we find in her husband.

Is it possible that those are the same virtues we ought to find in ourselves? In every Christian? How do we do here?

— Obedient: Are we Ahaz, the capricious man who did what he pleased regardless of rules, laws, expectations or moral values, or Joseph?

— Religious: Are we Ahaz, who had just enough religion to make him a cynic, who played games with God and for whom religion was a hobby? Or are we Joseph, for whom religion was a relationship with God — a commitment to be adhered to even when it causes pain and presents us with tension and uncertainty? The religion of a sincere heart and not just all mouth?

— Sensitive: Are we sensitive to no one, a person without feelings, like Ahaz? Or are we ready to accept pain and never ready to inflict it, always ready to put someone else’s good before ours, like Joseph?

— Docile: Are we Ahaz, pretending docility to God, but violating every moral and religious precept in the book? Or are we Joseph, always ready for God’s will, even when only faith understands it?

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Msgr. Albert Hallin has been a priest of the Diocese of Peoria for 52 years. Granted senior status and named pastor emeritus of St. Boniface, Seymour, in 2012, he resides in Champaign.

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