Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 22)

One of the most popular Christmas hymns around the world is “Silent Night.” The tune is soothing and still reflecting the calm the lyrics express: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm all is bright.”

For most people, the night is a time of quiet for we are at rest in sleep. If on occasion we have to get up and go somewhere during these hours, the roads are empty. We leave our homes and notice the silence. Noise is minimal and it is dark. The experience is accented the further away one lives from the city or suburbs.

We might think of this stillness and quietude as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We might remember the hopes and longing that Israel had for the advent of the messiah. We might think of our own hopes and longings for the Lord’s arrival. These hopes and longings are founded on faith in God’s saving activity. The God who creates longs to save, and does so. God acts to reach out to us and to deliver us. His providential plan is constantly at work, many times in the stillness and quietude we associate with night.

For the past few days, since Dec. 17, the church’s focus in the celebration of Advent has been the preparation for Christmas. The readings for each day focus on the preparation for the birth of the Messiah. This Sunday we recall the annunciation to Joseph. The interchange with the angel provides a poignant reminder that God’s saving activity is going on even when we do not realize it.

Joseph has discovered that Mary, his betrothed, is expecting a child. He knows the baby developing in her womb is not his child. He is distraught and wants to divorce her “quietly” so as not to embarrass her. Here we see Joseph as a righteous and compassionate man, a man of faith.

Regarding Mary’s pregnancy, the only explanation he can assume is that the child’s father is another man. He seeks to follow God’s command on marriage yet he does not wish Mary any harm. Even though he is a man of faith, he is unaware that the immediate preparations for the birth of the Messiah are underway and that he will have a major role in his birth and upbringing.

The angel appears in a dream and reveals God’s plan. Joseph’s response is a further manifestation of faith. He accepts the word of the messenger and takes Mary into his home.

Joseph is unaware at this point that Zechariah (whom he may well not have even known), had heard a message from an angel as well preparing for the birth of John the Baptist. This child when born and grown to manhood will proclaim the Messiah and prepare the way for Jesus’ mission.

God the Father is preparing for the birth of his Son not with trumpet blast but in stillness and quiet. The darkness of night will lead to a great morning of light.

The reading from Isaiah reminds us that God’s preparations are long-term. He has been getting Israel ready for hundreds of years. In our celebration of the Immaculate Conception a few weeks ago, we were reminded that the preparations go back not just to the conception of Mary but to the time of creation itself. God is always at work seeking to heal and save.

All these preparations are quietly unfolding. It might be helpful for us to reflect on this in our own lives. God’s saving activity is going on right now even if we are unaware. We may find ourselves in a situation in life that could be described as “dark.”

Maybe we are having anxiety over our children and their situation in life; perhaps we are unsure about our job or prospects for the future; perhaps we are in a “bad place” in life and are looking for a new direction; perhaps we are facing a difficult time with our spouse; or perhaps we are facing an illness with little hope for a cure.

We are reminded today that our calls to the Lord are heard, and he may be helping us even though we are unaware.

Or perhaps we are not facing a particular challenge or difficulty in life; God’s saving activity is still going on and we may be “surprised” one day to see how his saving hand was somehow directing us from harm and leading us to the joy and peace we experience now.

Joseph is directed to name the child to be born of Mary, “Jesus.” The name Jesus means “God saves.” The evangelist tells us that this child will be known as “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

In the busyness of these last few days before Christmas perhaps we can take a few moments to allow ourselves to be aware that God is with us. He is acting in our lives to heal, save, strengthen and renew us — even when we are unaware.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.