Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Reading Isaiah 7:10–14
Psalm Psalm 24:1–6
Second Reading Romans 1:1–7
Gospel Matthew 1:18–24
The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it. For he founded it on the seas, established it over the rivers. Who may go up the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place? “The clean of hand and pure of heart, who has not given his soul to useless things, what is vain. He will receive blessings from the Lord, and justice from his saving God. Such is the generation that seeks him, that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”
Reading the Word
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” Then he said: Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
Hearing the Word
“Life’s Purpose: ‘You Shall Name Him …’”
The liturgy of the fourth Sunday of Advent contains some of the best-known passages from both Old and New Testament. One consistent theme that runs through these readings is that of naming, and of the name. In biblical thinking, someone’s name is not merely a designation for an individual, but rather a word that identifies and, at the same time, defines the person. Thus, to know somebody’s name in the Bible means to know his or her identity, as well as having an idea about the mission and purpose this person accomplishes in life. Naming somebody, or changing someone’s name, are very significant and meaningful events. This biblical approach to names is apparent in the first reading. In order to understand the passage, we first have to study the context in which Isaiah delivered the message to king Ahaz. It was a time of great distress for the Israelites living in the kingdom of Judah ruled by this king. Ahaz was facing aggression by several kings of neighboring states allied against him. Their aim was to remove him, presumably by execution, and seize the kingdom and its army for the fight against the Assyrians, something that Ahaz was not willing to do. Ahaz was terrified and made preparations for the hopeless fight. In the midst of these preparation, as he inspected the water supply for the soon-to-bebesieged city, Isaiah came to him with the message of consolation: he assures the king that the faithful God of Israel will not allow his beloved city, Jerusalem, be overrun by the enemies, and that he is secure on the throne. To reassure him further, the Lord is willing to provide the kings with a sign. But Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign! This can only mean that he is not a person who takes the Lord God seriously, and is not willing to entrust his fate to God. In fact, history reveals that he had already decided to take matters into his own hands and ensure his own survival, without any appeal to God. He appealed for help to the Assyrians, a foreign nation of fierce warriors. What a terrible blunder that was! The Assyrians willingly responded to his plea. But Ahaz paid a terrible price for their assistance and protection: he had to become a vassal king of the Assyrians. That meant relinquishing the national autonomy of his kingdom. But more so, it meant that Ahaz agreed to adopt Assyrian ways of life, including their religion. He surrendered the sovereignty of Judah which became a puppet state under Assyria. These new rulers of Judah demanded adoption of their religion, which Ahaz duly did. He had no heart for God and became an idolatrous king. Following Assyrian instructions, he remodeled the Temple in Jerusalem to function as an Assyrian shrine where foreign gods were worshiped. Removing of the altar of sacrifices and all other Israelite religious symbols from the Temple meant that religious practices of the Israelites were abolished and the God of Israel had been effectively evicted from his temple! Jerusalem became a pagan city and Judah an Assyrian province. Israelites effectively ceased to be the people of God (cf. 1 Kgs 16). Isaiah’s prophecy about birth of a child has to be understood in this context. The child in question is Ahaz’s own son, soon to be delivered by his young pregnant wife. This will be an ordinary human being, who will perform extraordinary task defined by the symbolic name to be given to him: Emmanuel - “God is with us.” The name defines the purpose for which he will be born and the work he will eventually accomplish. History explains this name to us: the idolatrous king, Ahaz, indeed had a son whose name was Hezekiah. He was the very opposite of his father. Hezekiah, at the first opportune moment, shook off the yoke of the Assyrian occupation, and conducted an extensive religious reform. First, he restored the temple in Jerusalem to its proper function. Removing all the Assyrian elements, he reconstituted it as the Temple of God of Israel and restarted God’s worship. Moreover, he removed from the land all places where foreign idols were worshiped and reconstituted the nation according to God’s law. In short, Hezekiah brought back the country and the people to their ancestral faith. His name, “Emmanuel”, is the perfect reflection of his work: through him God was restored to his Temple, and Israelites once again became God’s people. Thanks to him they could once again say: “God is with us.” Paul’s original name was “Saul”, the name he changed after his experience on the road to Damascus and his encounter with the risen Lord. In the opening lines of the letter to the Romans he does not refer to the change of his name explicitly. But, he describes his identity by the use of three very significant, self-defining designations: “a slave of Jesus Christ”, “an apostle” and “set apart for the Gospel of God.” These three give us a comprehensive understanding of Paul’s identity and his mission. First, Paul belongs to Christ totally, to the point of seeing himself as “slave” or “servant.” Let’s be clear: he considers being “servant” as a privilege, not as forceful enslavement by Christ. He is a man sent, “an apostle”, which defines the way he lives: Paul is an emissary of God, a pilgrim, in constant movement to deliver the Gospel to the furthest reaches of the ancient world. Finally, his purpose in life is to carry the Gospel of God – the message of what God had done in and through his Son. His fate and entire life-focus is the proclamation of God’s Gospel because he had been destined to do so (set apart) for this specific task by God. Like Hezekiah, the “Emmanuel”, Paul is single-mindedly devoted to carrying out God’s work of spreading the Gospel in the world. He is famous for his utter dedication and uncompromising commitment to this mission. The birth of Jesus as described in Matthew is all about the naming of this newly born child. Joseph, a righteous man, embraces as his own the child he knows to be conceived by the Holy Spirit. He does this formally by giving the child a name which had been revealed to him by the angel. The name we use in English, “Jesus”, in Joseph’s native tongue, Hebrew, was “Yeshua”. As in the case of Hezekiah, this name carries meaning: “God saves.” Thus, this newly born child’s life will be all about bringing God’s salvation into the world. Through Jesus, God will save the world! The name says it all. The salvific mission of Jesus will not be an isolated episode in history. This is why Matthew clearly indicates that Jesus, in his saving work, will continue what God had already started with Hezekiah, the original Emmanuel. Like Hezekiah, Jesus’ work of salvation will be about restoring God to his people, and about mending ofdivine – human relationship broken by sin. He will “save the people from their sin”, which means that Jesus will remove the barrier of sin that prevents humanity from relating to God and becoming God’s people. While Hezekiah restored the Temple and the country to God of Israel, Jesus, the new Emmanuel, is going to restore the right relationship between God and humanity. Names carry meanings that describe our purposes in the world. Hezekiah, Paul and Jesus, each played a very particular and significant role God’s project of saving the world. Hezekiah ensured that the faith in the one true God did not die in time of the Assyrian crisis, some 700 years before Jesus’ birth. Jesus, God’s own son, brought salvation to humanity through his cross, where he removed the alienating effects of sin, and opened access to God for all peoples. Paul became an apostle (messenger) of this good news, caring it out to the whole world and establishing communities of believers. Those who welcomed and listened to him entered into this new relationship with God through Jesus and began to live as Christians. “A Christian” is the fitting name for anyone who seeks to be an agent of God’s salvation in the world through living in the pattern of Jesus. Indeed, Christians are the ones to whom the psalmist refers to as “the generation that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”
Listening to the Word of God
Names are very important in human history and particularly in our African cultures. Often parents and relatives give a new born baby not just an abstract name with no meaning, but a name that describes the circumstances of their birth and well wishes for the child. So many names in indigenous languages have a meaning that expresses these sentiments. Other ways in which we see the importance of names is the naming of buildings and roads. After independence many African nations changed the colonial names of places, streets, and even countries, replacing them with the names of persons who led the independence struggle, or other names that were meaningful and expressed the identity of the nation. With these new names for towns, buildings and roads the liberators hoped to change the history and memory of the people. Sometimes adults change their names as did the famous boxer who recently passed on, Mohammed Ali. Musicians change their names to make these catchy and appealing to their audiences. Some change names to take on those of their heroes. In some cases, people give nicknames to others to express their characters. It is well known that many missionaries working with our communities were given names that reflected the characteristics which described their work and mission. People in love, express their love and affection through affectionate names. Sometimes people give derogatory names to other ethnic groups or persons who are different, which may have negative consequences. Many of us were given names of saints when we were baptized. But how many of us know the stories of the saints whose name we bear, what their names mean for us? In the Bible, names were very important as seen in the readings of today. Without a doubt, naming is a powerful exercise. In our relationship with God, we often use labels that keep us in a particular place and stop us from getting deeper in our relationship with God. For example, because of an emphasis on sin in our faith, the label ‘sinner’ becomes the first thing we think about in our relationship with God. Indeed, we do not want to get rid of this name because it is part of who we are. But we are also given other names by God and Jesus. Jesus calls us friends, brothers and sisters, beloved and redeemed. God calls us ‘beloved children’, precious, valuable and those called to reflect God’s image. We bear these names and designations that reflect our wonderful identity: beloved children of God destined for salvation because our Lord is Jesus, ‘God saves.’ These are amazingly transformative names. Many of us may have allowed negative names given to us by those who distort who we truly are because of belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group, class or sex. This is not just about us but also our brothers and sisters in our parish and in our communities. Imagine how the atmosphere in your local church, family and community would change if we started to use our God-given names as our vocabulary and guide in understanding who we are as individuals and groups. It may change our orientation in dealing, responding and interacting with all people.
“You cannot name the good within yourself, if you cannot see it in others.”
Reflect on your names and how these have impacted you, and how they reflect who you are.
Response to God
Offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what God has made you, above all for making you His beloved child destined for salvation.
Response to your World
If I were to choose one name that reflects my identity, what would it be? Choose a name from the list given above that reflects your relationship with God and write down your response to these names. What would be the name that reflects the group you are a part of now? Is it the name you would be proud of?
Thank you, Dear Lord, for all the names that refer to me in the Bible, yes I am a sinner but also your beloved child. May I extend this to all I encounter and allow this to make me an agent of love wherever I am.