Fourth Sunday of Advent A
I asked a guy at the last Mass if he did anything special when he proposed marriage to his wife. He said, “No.” She quickly chimed in, “He even had me pick out my own ring.” (At least she got the one she wanted.) So I asked another fellow the same question, and he said, “Yes.” I asked, “Did you get her roses?” He said, “No.” But she jumped in, “Yes, you did!” I quickly ended that line of questioning… Not content, I asked another man after Mass. “We got engaged in the McDonald’s parking lot,” he replied. That’s not quite the kind of “special” I had in mind! I dared to ask once more, and this time the wife answered: “The first time he asked, he said, ‘Would you marry me if we were old enough to get married?’” I had forgotten they’d been high school sweethearts…
Matthew begins his account of the birth of Jesus by saying: When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Given our own experience of contemporary wedding customs, we assume that “betrothed” means “engaged.” But that’s not actually the case.
You see, Jewish wedding customs 2,000 years ago were nearly opposite of what we see most often today. Today, many couples cohabit and then commit: they live together for a while and, if things work out, then they’ll consider getting married. But in the days of Mary and Joseph, when a man and woman were betrothed, they exchanged vows publically. They didn’t live together yet—that could take up to a year more—but they were legally husband and wife. What did they do during this year of betrothal? The bride would begin packing her things, say good-bye to her family and friends, and learn from other women what she needed to know about being a good wife and (God willing) mother. The groom would go to his father’s house, where he’d begin to remodel a few rooms (or build a few new ones) in order to prepare a proper home for his new family. Meanwhile, he’d send gifts to his bride to woo her and show her his affection. (He’d also receive gifts from his friends to help fund the renovations.) When all was prepared, he’d send for his wife and welcome her into her new home. That’s when they’d have the wedding feast and their married life would begin.
Note how, in the gospel, Matthew refers to Joseph as Mary’s “husband,” and the angel refers to Mary as Joseph’s “wife.” When Joseph is discerning how best to respond to the news of Mary’s pregnancy, he doesn’t propose breaking off the engagement; he considers “divorce.” It makes so much more sense of the story to know these customs, doesn’t it? But there’s still more we can learn here…
You see, the pattern of betrothal and home-taking describes the whole history of salvation. It’s the outline of the whole of the Old Testament: the age of patriarchs, prophets, and kings that we relive, in a certain sense, during these four weeks of Advent. God sets his heart on a people of his choosing—his people, Israel—and sets about to draw his beloved ever to closer to himself. He binds himself to Israel with a covenant: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” It’s no accident, of course, that this sounds a lot like wedding vows!
And to seal this covenant, uniting God and man, heaven and earth, in an unbreakable bond, he sends his Son, Jesus. In a familiar passage from the gospel of John, as Jesus prepares his disciples for his coming Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he tells them, Do not let your hearts be troubled.… In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be (Jn 14:1-3). We miss the connection, but those who first heard Jesus speak these words would have understood immediately: all is now ready, and the Groom has come to take his Bride home.
What is true of God’s relationship with his people is also true of God’s relationship with each and every one of us. It is only out of God’s passionate love for you that you came into existence. No one else can bring life into being. God loved you before you were born, even before you were conceived. God was in love with the mere thought of you! And so God pursued you, and began a relationship with you. At your Baptism, vows were made: the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—became your God, and you became his own. The rest of your life is now the time of betrothal. The Bridegroom of your soul has prepared a place for you, and will return to take you to your eternal home to be with him forever. In the meantime, he sends you gifts as tokens of his love: he speaks his love to you in the Scriptures, in the teachings of his Church, and in the lives of his saints; he touches your life with his love in the Sacraments; he looks on you with love in the faces of the poor and the wonders of nature.
But what are we to do during this time of betrothal? How do we best prepare ourselves for the fullness of life and eternal communion God has in store for us? We can take our cue here, too, from good St. Joseph. The angel commands him to do two things: to take Mary, his wife, into his home, and to name her child Jesus. These things Joseph promptly did. Likewise, we need to take Mary into our homes. The Mother of God is our mother, too. She is the first and model disciple of Jesus. We need to stay close to Mary, to take Mary into our hearts and homes, because without fail Mary takes us to her Son. As well, we need to speak the name of Jesus. Jesus’ name is said aloud by many people many times every day…but not in a reverent fashion. We need to say his holy name often, for in it there is great power. It’s not enough to speak about spirituality or religion or God in generic terms. Not only in prayer, but also in conversation with others, we need to pronounce the sacred name of him who came to save us from our sins. As we await the Lord’s return, let us keep Blessed Mary close and speak the Holy Name of Jesus.
This Sunday, we find St. Joseph at the very crux of his betrothal—and not only of his betrothal to the Virgin Mary, but of the saving betrothal of God and the human race. It is due to his deep faith, his righteousness, his courage in obeying God’s will, that we can recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient promise: that Mary’s child is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us. What a debt of gratitude we owe to that just man, Joseph, because of whom we can believe that God has made his home with us, that we might find our home in God!