Wednesday, 25 December 2019

4th Advent of Sunday Year A 2019

We have shifted from a Sunday of John the Baptist to a Sunday of Joseph from Nazareth. However, the First Reading and the Gospel today provide a canvas of contrast in which trust is one of the themes for this Sunday. It begins with the fascinating story of Ahaz, the son of Jotham and the father of Hezekiah. Fascinating because what we hear in the first reading is a commendable King who refuses to put God to the test. However, a background check would reveal a clearer picture of one of the lousier Kings of Judah. He ascended the throne relatively young and was religiously improper in his worship—on the mountain rather than in the Temple. He faced a coalition of powers banded to resist the hegemony of Assyria. As he did not want to ally himself with Israel and Syria, he entered into a pact with Assyria. Prophet Isaiah cautioned him to trust God instead of relying on foreign allies. To confirm that this was indeed a true prophecy, Ahaz could ask for a sign. Even though he nobly refused, still, the Prophet gave it to him.

Ahaz may have been righteous in this one instant, but he was a disaster as far as the monarchy went. The point of the prophecy is to show us that God can be trusted. Here in the case of Ahaz, before long, the kingdoms threatening from the North were laid low and Judah prospered more than it had ever done so when it was threatened by Assyria. For Ahaz in the First Reading, God was indeed the Immanuel. 

With Joseph, the scenario is different. This was a man of honour who upon the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, decided to spare her the humiliation. However, in a dream, he was told to do otherwise and to accept Mary and the child as his own. He could have disregarded the dream and carried on with his original intention, but, he did not. He was definitely acting out of character for Joseph, to be called a man of honour must have been a law-abiding Jew. He would have found it a challenge to step beyond the legal confines of his thinking to trust in the vision that God had presented to him. So, in our Christmas focus, we can easily overlook this momentous “Yes” of Joseph forgetting that the Fiat of Mary would have amounted to nothing if it were not supported by Joseph’s humble assent. This was a man of profound trust in God.

Trusting in God does not come naturally to many of us. For one, our sense of the self, that is, the sense of who we are, is highly individualistic aptly represented by the myth of the self-made man or woman. The virtues of modesty and humility do not fit into our measure or standard of what it means to have lived a good life. It seems that our notion of success is marked by self-determination. Is it a wonder why some elderly folks feel lonelier because they refuse to accept help? To capitulate, that is, to give in to assistance would be a sign of personal failure in a self-defining society. Now you understand why people commit suicide when they are incapacitated. Furthermore, we have certainly absorbed, in an osmotic manner, another fiction flowing from the American dream—that is the freedom to be what one wants to be. Whatever dreams one may have, the world exists in order to fulfil our dreams.[1] Only when we can live our dreams will our lives be fulfilled. This is a powerful narrative which we are bombarded with every day. Somehow the true “self-in relation-to-others” has disappeared under the cult of the individual/personal self. We are lulled into believing that we are better than others because our needs matter most. Have you seen how impatient important people are? We are somehow entitled to everything we desire. We may be unknowingly convinced that our Facebook friends are waiting to read of our latest accomplishment or exploits. Anything less, we are led to believe that we have been victimised.

Breaking into our self-engrossed or self-absorbed universe, Joseph provides a more interesting sense of fulfilment. He walks with us into the territory of missed opportunities, wasted chances and personal failure. A beautiful wife to have and children with her—half a dozen maybe? Do you not think that he would have had great plans for his carpentry trade? Joseph and Sons. His dream comes nowhere near the plan that God has laid out for him. Thus, he becomes a model of sacrifice and self-denial. Furthermore, his love was generous; without counting the cost. He spent his life providing for a family not of his own, letting go of the desire to have a family of his own. In short, he forsook his dream in order to fulfil a dream far bigger than his: “You must name Him Jesus, because He is the one who is to save His people from their sins”.

On the cusp of Christmas, a relevant question to ask is what our vocation should be like. Where do our dreams fit into the reality of Christ’s birth? There is a rubbishy song which I am sure we sing without giving it a second thought. “Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart”. On the one hand, it fits flawlessly into our rather “subjectivistic” worldview where everything revolves around us. This self-obsessed cult takes an objective historical event—the birth of Christ—and reduces it to a subjective experience in which we become the measure of how real “Christmas” is. But, on the other hand, it is also true that whilst the historical Christmas may have come and we have been commemorating it for the last 2000-odd years, still, what is it if we do not fit into its story. What is Christmas if we live far from its ideal?

The atmosphere, emotion and feeling associated with the birth of Christ may be expectant, fuzzy and warm but as Joseph illustrated today, when God enters our lives, it is not always as magical as we think it should be. Thus, when God is with us, trust should be our response. In fact, faith is the only appropriate response where the result will always be beyond our expectation.

For every Ananda Krishnan, Robert Kuok or Syed Bukhari that society lauds or praises, I am sure there are many who fall by the wayside of the overlooked and forgotten. As in the case of Joseph, the futility of his dream was not an indication of failure but rather a sign that God had other plans. Therefore, when our expectations meet with failure and our dreams are shattered, the question to ask is, where God could be leading us. In that case, how do we transform our sorrows into an oblation of trusting joy by fitting our desires into God’s greater dream for the world—which is, for the world to be saved in Jesus Christ.

There is only one story for the Immanuel—God with us and that is for the salvation of man. That is the reason for His first and second/final coming. To summarise, both these men, Ahaz and Joseph symbolise our capacity. In Ahaz, we acknowledge our ability to resist God’s overtures whereas, in Joseph we recognise our capacity to trust God’s design. Either way, God desires to be with us for He is Immanuel. The question is, do we want to be with God?

[1] We are disgusted by “selfish” people. But, in truth, people are not selfish as if they want to be like that. They are selfish because they have not questioned this assumption about existence that the world does not owe them a living. If they do not question this assumption, then they will be “selfish” for they unwittingly expect the world and even God to bend to their will.