December 22, 2013
ADVENT IV (A)
Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” – Is. 7: 12
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.
– Mt. 1: 24
Here we have a tale of two fathers: Ahaz is a proud but frightened king, & Joseph is a peasant humble enough to step aside & trust God.
Ahaz, the king of Judah, was in a predicament. The king of Syria & the king of Israel, the northern kingdom, had joined forces to besiege Jerusalem, & force Ahaz off the throne & replace him with a puppet who would then join them to fight against the Assyrian army threatening from the north. Isaiah was fed up with his equivocating & dared Ahaz to ask a sign from God so that he could trust Yahweh.
Joseph, on the other hand, we know little about. This text is more about his trial than the birth of Jesus. Of the two, we can probably identify more with Ahaz. Like him, we feel carried along by blind powerful forces which aimlessly seem to wreak destruction or confusion that will take ages to repair. Whether it be personal tragedy, impersonal bureaucracy, or the mindless attacks of the terrorist or mugger, our self-confidence is shaken. When God challenges us to put our trust in Him we can only respond with a failure of nerve & say, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!”
We tend to be like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of that same name: spending a great deal of our lives trying to redeem our lost self-image & esteem, but fail to grasp the basic truth that the only image & esteem worth having comes from God alone.
Discouraged, we turn to our leaders – political or religious or whatever – only to discover to our astonishment how little those who seemed to have power in their hands knew themselves the direction in which they were leading us. But where do we find one like Joseph today? Here are some excerpts from the letters of a missionary priest in South Africa around the turn of the last century:
My thoughts run often to Nofamile Noholoza just now. When I saw him he was sitting on a goat skin wrapped in a blanket outside his hut. He did not tell me he wanted anything; it was only some days after my visit that I heard quite accidentally that he was very poor & had nothing. He is an old man living at one of the outstations of the parish. For years he has regularly made his communion at our monthly visits, but beyond this I did not know much of him.
Hearing that he was very ill, I walked over to his Kraal from our priest’s hut, & found him as I said above. I sat down by his side & asked to hear about his sickness. I then read the Gospel for the day & talked about it to him. It was the warning against over-anxiety, pointing to the birds of the air & the flowers. As I spoke I was wondering how much the old man was understanding. He had never learned to read a line, & knew nothing except what he had heard in sermons; but he had evidently responded to the grace of the sacraments, & here was the secret of his understanding. Nofamile waited until I had finished, & then he said, “I am a fool & a corpse, but even I can understand these words. They are beautiful words, words of life. The treasures of the world do not help us … how can they help us? I have nothing. I trust in God alone.”
Another letter adds:
I visited Nofamile today, & hope to celebrate in his Kraal tomorrow morning. I found the old man sitting outside the same hut on the same goat skin, as at my first visit two years ago. He is less able to get about, but more unconquerably joyful than ever. He has hardly any eyesight left, yet his face looks quite radiant.
As we reflect on this old man in a forgotten village in the middle of nowhere, perhaps we can begin to glimpse the mystery of Joseph. When God comes to us to challenge our conventional worldly wisdom & asks us to trust Him, like Joseph we can be transformed by it & become radiant within whatever our external circumstances. To have joy in the Lord like Joseph & Nofamile is to reap the fruits of penitence & frequent communion with God in prayer & the sacraments. It is nothing less than the joy of companionship with God which points to the mystery of the incarnation: Christ coming into the individual soul, the family, the community, or the society that welcomes Him, & changing it into His own likeness.
Where we find a joy that can be explained only by the presence of Christ, then we can perhaps begin to appreciate the wonder & grandeur of that greatest gift of all which we claim to celebrate during this season. AMEN!