Reflection for the Vigil of Fourth Sunday of Advent 2013

December 21, 2013

by Eleanor Suther, OSB

Readings: 2 Samuel 7: 8-14; Matthew 1:18-24

David had his plans.  Here he was, acknowledged as King of Israel, situated on the heights of Zion. He could look down on his enemies.  He had built for himself a royal palace.  And now he thought he should build a temple to the God of Israel...after all isn’t that what kings a temple that reflects the glory of their people and the power of their gods?  He consulted Nathan, the prophet,  who said, "Go and do what seems right to you."

You’ve heard it said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." 

But then, God sends Nathan, his prophet, to David with a different  message: "I took you from the pasture, from tending the sheep..I was with you...and after you have gone to be with your ancestors...I will still be there, loving you and taking care of you.  And God has even more wonderful plans, “Your house and your reign will last forever before me..."

Joseph had his plans...or at least his dreams. Like other Jews of his time, who belonged to the House of David, he must have pondered what that prophecy could mean.  They knew what came after David, and it did not look like the reign of God. From their history, they also knew that God can do surprising things.   But living in poverty, as an oppressed people, could you still believe in the promise?

At least on a personal level, Joseph had more realizable dreams, a beautiful fiancé, who was full of grace, and together they would raise sons and daughters who would carry on his name and his legacy. And then the unthinkable happens.  His betrothed, the one he loved, seemed to be...indeed was...pregnant! He must have felt betrayal, and yet the gospels tells us, he was torn between Mary's evident goodness and her evident pregnancy.  And her story, "Could you believe that?”  So he made plans to divorce her quietly.  He still loved her.

And then he has a dream. An angel, a messenger from God, who confirms Mary’s story,  tells him not to be afraid, calls him Son of David, tapping into the common memory of his people, that great promise of the one who would come to redeem God's people, the one who will set them free.

So his plans are exploded, and from the fragments of old plans he must build a new one, to take Mary as his wife, to foster this son, this Jesus who will free his people. With Mary he ponders the wonder of the God who is faithful, one generation to the next. They put their trust in the one whose plans are full of tenderness and mercy for all people.  

Catherine DeHueck Doherty, in her reflection on this event, wonders if at times Joseph wondered if he really could believe in the dream?  When times were hard, as refugees in Egypt, when the child was lost, when he lay dying before he sees the promise fulfilled, he must have wondered.  And yet continues to hope in the promise.

We are good at making plans, and carrying them out. Over 150 years our community has planned and operated a great college, many schools, formed and educated hundreds of sisters, established daughter houses.  And then faithfully following Vatican Council II, we went back to the spirit of our founders, re-creating ourselves, as it were, from the bottom up, We put in place programs for initial and ongoing formation. We entered whole heartedly into the Church's mission of bringing the joy of the Gospel into the heart of our 20th century culture. It was a beautiful dream and sometimes we felt successful. And sometimes we wondered whether we could still believe in the dream. Through it all, God has been with us and blessed us.

Here we are 50 years later, a different world,  and the church is once again confronting us with the vision of  Vatican II. How do we inculturate the Gospel into our increasingly scientific,  technocratic, individualistic, violent, profit driven world?  Where is God in all of this? Can we still believe in the dream

Pope Francis is calling us to reawaken in ourselves the joy of the Gospel--to leave behind our own plans for the Church’s future--be they liberal or conservative--and to hear once again the "newness" of the Gospel. Like those first Christians who embraced the Gospel and lived it in their own time and place,  we are called to let go of our plans, our need to protect ourselves and our plans, and to hear again God's call  to bring the joy of the Gospel in this new time and place.

Let us listen with David, to God's words,  I took you from the sheepfold, (from the Kansas frontier) I was with you always..."  "I will build you a house..." and to Joseph, "you shall call him Emmanuel, God with us..."

As we prepare to celebrate the feast of Emmanuel, let us together reaffirm our faith and hope in the God who explodes our plans, makes wonderful promises,  and who will be faithful one generation to the next.