Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 23, 2001

Medical Missions, Fox Chase, Philadelphia

(Based on Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24)

In the readings for today's liturgy God offers us a great grace. It is the grace of challenged expectations. What might that mean?

Think of Joseph as he is depicted in today's Gospel. He is an honorable man, a good man, a religious man, a keeper of the covenant. In choosing to marry Mary he is faithful to his heritage and to God's ways.

When suddenly -- against all expectations, against all the signs of her love for him and fidelity to him -- he discovers that she is pregnant.

It is surely very hard for us to appreciate all the emotions which might -- appropriately -- have arisen in him: anger? Confusion? Disillusionment? Surely at the least, surprise. At the very least, the story was not unfolding as he had expected it to.

We saw a similar thing in last week's story of John the Baptist. Whereas in the story the week before he had been strong and confident, when he is kept isolated in prison he begins to wonder, to have a new question: maybe I read it all wrong; maybe I was too eager for the coming of the Messiah so that I misinterpreted the signs. "Are you he who is to come?" Or is it possible we should look for someone else?

Challenged expectations. . . .

So we have both John the Baptist and Joseph shaken: what does this all mean? Where is God in all this?

It sounds a bit like the American people on September 11, doesn't it? We had it all pretty well worked out. We were the city on the hill. A few problems to work out; a bit of poverty and remnants of racism. Advice we needed to give to others to get their act together. But all in all, things were going pretty much sd God promised they would -- for us.

September 11 throws it all in a cocked hat. God's plan for our world is suddenly not all that clear.

We experience anger, pain, confusion, shock, numbness. Hey, God, what's going on? We wake up from our slumber (that's what Advent is all about, you know) to discover that a lot of our world hates us. Hey, we're the good guys!

Joseph cares for Mary but he sees no way out. Put her away quietly, spare her the shame.

But God intervenes and tells him to honor his commitment. Don't be afraid, live in trust. Believe me, I am at work in this painful situation. Have courage, this child is Immanuel: God is here. His name is Jesus. He who saves.

"Don't be afraid" -- the refrain that was to come so often from the lips of Jesus.

You thought you knew the way. You thought you knew me. And you find my ways mysterious beyond all imagining.

Isn't that what conversion is all about: losing our sense of security and having to go back to the hard work of trying to hear the voice of the Lord in things we thought could never happen?

It means standing still before the mystery of the Potter God, who always remains free to go down into the potting shed and smash the works which were good but which we had turned into idols.

We must not run from September 11, as much as we would all want to put it out of our consciousness. We must let the event question us.

God did not leave our world on its own on September 11, any more than God departed from our earth at the Holocaust or Hiroshima. Our God is still with us, still about the same work our God is always about: the work of transforming us. Through our experiences, as individuals and as peoples, the God who cares infinitely for us questions us. If we can allow our expectations to be challenged, we can grow into the people God wills us to be -- to God's delight and our beatitude.