What do we truly want? Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 1:18–24:

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 conceive 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.

Advent is a season of anticipation — but what exactly do we spend our time anticipating? Do we remain focused on our own desires and our own will, or do we use Advent as a time in which to anticipate what God has in store for us?

This question occurred to me over the last week as we go through our usual family discussions about who owes whom a Christmas wish list. These days, I’m much more into the gift-giving mode than the gift-receiving mode, but that’s a bit unfair, too. After all, I’m enjoying the anticipation of seeing my loved ones get gifts that they are also truly anticipating. Disclaiming any interest in putting together my own list might be robbing my family of the same joy. And whatever else one can say about the Loot List Debates, it’s a kind of commercialized exercise in adapting one’s will to another’s.

Today’s first reading offers a conviction of sorts on this point, too. Isaiah tells Ahaz that the Lord wants a prayer for a sign from the king, and and says the Lord wants Ahaz to know how unlimited His love is. Instead of providing a wish list, Ahaz balks out of humility, telling Isaiah, “I will not tempt the Lord!” Isaiah, however, is not amused. “Is it not enough for you to weary people,” the prophet rebukes Ahaz, “must you also weary my God?” Rather than wait for Ahaz to come up with a request for a sign, Isaiah continues: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

The problem Ahaz has is that he has not anticipated the will of the Lord, nor put his trust in the Lord’s prophet. If anything, Ahaz is too scrupulous in his humility, to the point where he disdains a true gift from the Lord. However, God’s will is done regardless in Isaiah’s prophecy declaring the coming of the Messiah, who will be known as God-among-us.

In our Gospel reading today as well, Joseph struggles with the Incarnation, not grasping that the Lord has given Joseph a critical role to play in the Messiah’s life. He had anticipated a normal family life with a wife to give birth to his children, living as a righteous family among the humble in Nazareth for the rest of their lives. When Mary tells him what has happened to her, Joseph does not see this as an opportunity to anticipate the Lord’s will, but a shameful situation from which he must extricate both himself and Mary before harm comes to either.

In this instance, the Lord sends His messenger to Joseph to explain what the Lord’s will for the child is and will be. Rather than focus on the values of the material world and anticipate doom and disgrace, the angel tells Joseph to see how God plans to save everyone through Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In this dream, Joseph is presented with a choice to cling to his own earlier hopes and aspirations, or to form himself to the will of the Lord and anticipate the marvelous works to come.

Unlike Ahaz, and unlike those of us who dawdle on our Christmas lists, Joseph has to choose — then and there. He has to either choose to follow his own ambitions and desires, his own wish lists as it were, or to put them aside and form his heart to the Lord’s will no matter what it means for his reputation and his standing in the community.

This is the decision that we face each Advent too, and truly each day in our Christian lives, and it comes down to this question: Do we truly know what we want? Do we want to form ourselves to the world around us, clinging to our own desires and ambitions? Or do we want to form ourselves to the Lord, preparing for salvation and forming the world around us by our charity and faith?

This choice dictates what exactly our anticipation focuses on. If we are anticipating the gifts and the family sweetnesses and dramas exclusively, we are missing the point and choosing the wrong path. If we keep those in proper perspective and focus on recommitting ourselves to the Lord in this Advent season, then we can focus on the gift of Christ and our life with Him in eternity. Joseph had an angel to point out the correct path, but we have the Gospels and the entirety of the salvation story laid out before us.

All we need to anticipate is how to prepare ourselves for that journey. Somehow, though, I don’t think that gets me off the hook for writing a Christmas list.

The front-page image is a detail from “Joseph’s Dream” by Gaetano Gandolfi, c. 1790. Currently part of a private collection. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.