Advent 04, Year A-2010
- He has raised up for us a mighty savior (Lk. 1:69—ICET)
Ahaz’ mind was made up. This king of Judah had enough of Isaiah’s prophetic advice not to appeal to Assyria for help against the hostile military alliance between the king of Aram and the king of Israel. He did not think he could simply remain tranquil and not afraid, relying only on God. Though urged further to ask from God even, if he would like, the most extraordinary or miraculous sign, Ahaz still did not budge. His response was: “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord.”
Taken at face value, the reply was pious since it echoed the injunction, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Dt. 6:16—NAB), which Jesus himself would cite some 700 years after Ahaz in order to counter the devil’s suggestion that he ask a sign from God that would prove him to be his Son (Mt. 4:12; Lk. 4:7). But since it came from a king who did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Kgs. 16:2; 2 Chron. 28:1), the reply must have sounded clearly duplicitous to pious ears. Isaiah saw Ahaz’ reply for what it really was: a stubborn disregard for God’s laws and designs masquerading as religious observance. It was consistent with the pattern the king had shown of testing not only people’s patience but also God’s.
Given his notoriety, then, Ahaz could really not be expected to discern God’s plan, let alone, be open to it. One sees in Ahaz a confirmation of the truth that God condemns to their own stubbornness and devices those who neither listen to his words nor submit to him (Ps. 81:12-13) and that he makes the duplicitous fall into the pit they dig and their feet caught in the snare they hide (cf. Ps. 9:16).
Joseph too had made up his mind. He would divorce Mary quietly. But unlike Ahaz, he was a righteous man, that is to say, he was faithful to the law and did what was pleasing to the Lord. In contrast to Ahaz also, Joseph, in accordance to the pattern of religious obedience he had shown, followed God’s bidding not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife into his home. Not unlike his wife probably, Joseph wondered at the words he heard, meaning (if I remember correctly an expression Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., used many years ago), he allowed them to wound him, to pierce the closed membrane of his consciousness, so he could be open to God’s designs.
Surely, Joseph’s faith and obedience made for discernment. I see Joseph showcasing that the Lord’s perfect law refreshes the soul, that the Lord’s trustworthy decree gives wisdom to the simple, that the Lord’s right precepts give joy to the heart, that the Lord’s clear command enlightens the eye (cf. Ps. 19:8-9; Ps. 119:130).
And Saul of Tarsus, for his part, was determined to get rid of Jesus’ followers. He was “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” when divine intervention suddenly stopped him in his tracks and was told there was no use kicking against the goad, no use trying to oppose God’s plan (Acts 9:1-6; 26:14). Saul submitted and he “received the grace of apostleship,” according to today’s second reading, “to bring about the obedience of faith.” Though the least of the apostles, by his own admission, and underserving of the title, yet he was an apostle who, by God’s grace, worked harder than all of them (1 Cor. 15:9-10).
And there would later be further admission of blasphemy, arrogance, of being a persecutor and a foremost sinner, of ignorance and unbelief, which was all a way of underscoring God’s grace and mercy and eliciting gratitude (1 Tim. 1:12-17). But notwithstanding such confession, Paul was at the outset an observant Jew, educated later as a Pharisee at the feet of Gamaliel and trained thoroughly in the law of his Jewish ancestors, and therefore a Jew of strict observance, blameless in legalistic righteousness, so zealous for God he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:5-6; Acts. 22:3). Because he was faithful in these relatively small matters, he was—I’d like to think—entrusted with greater responsibilities (cf. Mt. 25:21, 23).
Faithful observance, the obedience of faith, I would moreover like to think, prepares one for true discernment and subsequent acceptance of God’s plan, a change of mind or a course correction, if God so requires. And faith and obedience mean fundamentally, it seems to me, personal experience of God, “personal appropriation of the living faith of the Church,” letting the Holy Spirit transform “the gospel into the power of salvation for all who believe,” to borrow expressions used by Cardinal Avery Dulles , partaking of the table of Word and Sacrament, and, ultimately, allowing God to be God-with-us.
If truly God is God-with-us for me, I can be sure of the presence of the Advocate to guide me to all truth and to remind me of the truth St. Vincent de Paul emphasized that “we live in Jesus Christ by the death of Jesus Christ and that we ought to die in Jesus Christ by the life of Jesus Christ and that our life ought to be hidden in Jesus Christ by the life of Jesus Christ and that in order to die like Jesus Christ it is necessary to live like Jesus Christ . God-with-us makes me remember the poor, because he is one with them, and opens my eyes to the truth, seen simply yet clearly by a poor Filipino woman working in Japan, that only God really helps the poor  and that I have no one to turn to, when confronted with huge problems, but God-with-us who is alive in my poor fellow faithful . God-with-us is the sign that strengthens me so that I may not be afraid but remain tranquil in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. I am even more encouraged as I discern by faith that the transcendent fulfillment of the sign of God-with-us when Jesus was born makes its fulfillment in Ahaz’ young wife giving birth to their son, the future king Hezekiah, pale in comparison.
But then, of course, the sign, this sacrament, is contradicted (cf. Lk. 2:34), for it suggests sacrifice and elicits it. Yet whether I like it or not, am aware of it or not, there is no salvation except in this sign and in this name (cf. Acts. 4:12).
-  Cf. Patrick W. Carey, “Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., Among the Theologians: A Memorial Reflection,” Theological Studies 71 (2010) 777, 789.
-  P. Coste, I, 295.
-  Cf. Father Adolfo Nicolás’ homily after his election as Jesuit Superior General at http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/GC35/CG35_2008-01-20%20Homily_eng.pdf (accessed December 19, 2010).
-  Cf. Bishop David M. O’Connell’s December 1, 2010 address at http://www.dioceseoftrenton.org/diocese/bishopoconnell_message.asp (accessed December 19, 2010).