As we draw ever closer to the celebration of the birth of Christ and ponder the readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, I would invite you to reflect on the lives of three men; all of them born in different periods of history.
The first one was weak, the second was strong, and the third was, quite possibly (with the exception of Jesus Himself) the holiest man who ever lived.
The one who was weak appears in our first reading this weekend: King Ahaz. He was the leader of the people of Israel, and to understand why he was weak we need to go back a few verses before the passage that we hear this weekend. Our reading includes the middle section of Chapter 7 in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
But if you read the beginning of that same chapter, Isaiah describes the political and historical background: The nation was being threatened by nearby Assyria, who had made an alliance with the enemies of the king and planned to invade Jerusalem. Isaiah tells us the reaction of King Ahaz and the people when they discovered that horrific news:
The heart of the king and the heart of the people trembled as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.
The people and the king were terrified…but that is not what made him a weak leader. It was his lack of faith and trust in God in the midst of that conflict that made King Ahaz weak.
As soon as word reaches them that the attack will happen, God sends the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to strengthen and reassure him. God wants the king to know that he will be supported; he will not be abandoned. He even tells him to ask for a sign from heaven that things will be all right, gives him permission to ask for anything at all…but Ahaz refuses!
“I will not ask,” he says. “I will not tempt the Lord!”
He presumes to rely on his own strength and the strength of his allies, but not on the strength that comes from God. That was his weakness.
Thankfully God does not leave the king and his people in their weakness. He comes to them anyway, sending Isaiah out first with a reprimand for the king:
Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.
Emmanuel means “God is with us,” and that would be the sign. God would be with the king and the people of Israel and His strength and might would see them through. Thanks be to God that our Lord does not leave us in our weakness, but comes to us anyway! That was the man who was weak.
The second man, I said, was strong. He was physically strong, growing up as an athlete and even working for a time as a laborer. But he was also spiritually and morally strong. He began studying for the priesthood around the time of the Second World War, and many years later became the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. We would all come to know him as Pope John Paul II, and he was one of the strongest leaders the Church had seen in centuries.
In his biography on Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel tells the story about the conclave in which the cardinals of the Church elected the Polish Cardinal as our new pope. They had been praying and discerning for days when finally it seemed that God was guiding them all in the direction of the young Cardinal from Krakow. As they counted the ballots it became clear that he would be the next pope.
Eyewitnesses say that he looked visibly shaken as he bent over and placed his face in his hands, overwhelmed at the grave responsibility that was about to fall to him. Seeing him then, some of the cardinals began to fear that he would not accept the nomination!
Yet moments later the entire demeanor of this man would change dramatically. When he greeted the world as the new successor of St. Peter, he addressed them all with the words that would mark and define his papacy:
“Be not afraid!”
What had changed between that first recognition that the office of the papacy had been entrusted to him, and the proclamation to the entire world that we have nothing to fear? How could he be that confident, that courageous?
I believe he understood what King Ahaz and the people of Israel had learned in that first reading: Emmanuel. That God is with us. God would guide him and our Church, just as He always had; we need not be afraid.
Which brings us to the final man I mentioned: the one who was, quite possibly (with the exception of Jesus Christ Himself) the holiest man who ever lived: St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Foster Father of Jesus the Christ.
The circumstances in which we find St. Joseph and the Holy Family this weekend are more than a little awkward. Joseph has just discovered that Mary is pregnant, and he decides to divorce her quietly.
We do not know what Mary has said to him, or what he believed about what she said, but we know he has decided to let her go. And somewhere in the midst of that decision, we know that he was afraid. We know that to be the truth because St. Matthew tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said: Do not be afraid!
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
Now there are a couple of different opinions on why Joseph might have been afraid to remain with Mary. The first and obvious one is that he didn’t know who the father was. The second possibility is that he did know who the father was, and he was terrified! Being a father is difficult enough, but what man could be the father of God?
Either way, Joseph faced a future that was uncertain and quite different than what he thought it would be. And into his fear and uncertainty God reveals to him a plan that will change the world forever: That this child to be born of Mary will be Emmanuel—God with us—and the savior of the world.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, as we reflect on these three very different men, we can ask ourselves: What about us? What are the things in our world, and in our lives, that we are afraid of? What are the things that cause us fear?
We live in a culture often dominated by fear, with terrorism on a global scale and our nation even now at war. We all know of courageous men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, people we pray for on a daily basis.
There are a thousand things we could be afraid of: our own death; the loss of loved ones; health concerns; fear of being alone; fear of being with other people; fear of almost anything that threatens our safety, peace and security in this fragile world we live in.
God reminds us today that He is Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us in the midst of all our fears. We can take to heart the words of Jesus Christ all throughout the gospels, the words that Pope John Paul II made his own and shared with the world on the first occasion he addressed us as our Holy Father, and words that he took to heart right up until his own entrance into eternal life: Be not afraid. God is with us.