4th Sunday of Advent A

A sign from the Lord

King Ahaz, spoken of in today’s first reading, was in one sense commendable when he refused to ask God for a sign: “I will not tempt the Lord.” It is impertinent of us to demand that the Almighty keep showing us His divine credentials. He uses miracles with great economy.

But we who believe are sometimes too ready to consider this or that striking occurrence as a sign given us by God. One such occurrence was described in April 1983, by the Associated Press.

That month, a visitor to the Walker County Medical Center in Jasper, Alabama, noticed what looked like Jesus’ face on the laminated birch-wood door of the hospital’s recovery room. There were two “eyes” that appeared tear-filled, set in what looked somewhat like a Christ-face. News of this phenomenon spread quickly, and during the following week at least 10,000 people came to see it. Viewers had difference reactions. Some laughed nervously. Some wept. Some prayed. One man took it as a promise that his ailing son would recover; and the son did get well. On the other hand, certain of the hospital employees referred to it as “the hoax.”

Of course, the newspapers seized upon the event, soliciting the opinions of local pundits. Ministers of the vicinity asked to be given the door, if the Medical Center, obviously embarrassed by the crowds of visitors, should remove it. A Benedictine monk of a nearby monastery said that while divine signs are always possible, the Catholic Church is cautious about declaring unusual happenings miraculous.

Photographs published in the daily press suggested that the “face” was merely a natural pattern in the laminated wood. At all events, the furor soon died down. Six months later the press apparently considered the “apparition” no longer newsworthy. One suspects that at Jasper faith had yielded to credulity. This is always a perilous thing, since credulity, once disappointed, can contribute to a loss of true faith.

Ahaz’ real fault in refusing to ask a sign from God was that on that occasion God wanted to give a sign. What Ahaz refused to ask, God gave anyhow, to the King and all mankind: “The virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and she shall name Him Emmanuel.”

This was a new pledge of divine salvation; and when Christ was born at Bethlehem, the sign of virginal birth was recognized as true by the exiled children of Eve.

-Father Robert F. McNamara

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Q. 455: If St. Joseph was ready to divorce his fiancée, then it would seem that divorce must be permissible? Is that one of the messages in today’s gospel (Matthew 1:18-24)?

We need to remember not to confuse the separate issues of “legality” and “morality.” Not all biblical teachings in the Old Testament, such as the permission given by Moses for men to divorce their wives, are meant to be binding forever; several were abolished by Jesus. For example, the practice of divorce in St. Joseph’s day, an accommodation that had slipped into the old Law, was later flatly prohibited by Jesus (e.g., Mark 10:2-12; see CCC #2382). His new ban was an entirely new idea not found in the Old Testament or even the rabbinical literature. Today, just like the crime of abortion, divorce from a sacramental marriage has come to be “accepted” by non-Catholics in our culture simply because it is “legal” – even though it is “immoral.” Divorce is a civil matter, not a religious event. If the Church investigates and concludes that a marriage was, in fact, not sacramental, then an annulment can be granted – which simply states that no sacramental marriage existed in the first place.

That most awesome event that we celebrate each year, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, is only days away! Just think about what is going on here. For centuries the Jewish people had been expecting a Messiah, the One the prophets had announced would be coming to save them. And then the Messiah came! He became incarnate – our divine God took on our human flesh! That is the “awesome” part (human words fail to describe this great mystery) – so overwhelming that every Sunday when we pray our Creed, each of us bows our head as we say, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man!” That is all a human believer can do: simply bow our heads in awe and adoration and such a remarkable event in history!

So today let’s focus on God’s intervention in our human history, the mystery of the Incarnation. Also, let’s remember to trust in God’s word, as St. Joseph trusted in God’s word given to him by an angel.

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Today’s scripture stories about divine intervention – the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of Mary and Joseph – is seen as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz in the First Reading (CCC #497). On the cultural scene, if civil divorce is the only way of ensuring certain legal rights, it can be tolerated, and for that reason does not constitute a moral offense (CCC #2383).

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