On the fourth Sunday of Advent we are invited to consider the preliminaries to Christmas, that is to say, what happened before the birth of Christ. The most important event preceding a person’s birth is his conception, which ordinarily comes about nine months before one’s birth. Actually, we celebrate Jesus’ conception exactly nine months before Christmas, namely on March 25, by the solemnity of the Annunciation. But the Church wants us to take up again this event also in the proximity of Christmas, precisely on this last Sunday of Advent, which therefore could be named the “Incarnation Sunday.”
Since this year the liturgy makes us read the gospel of Matthew, instead of hearing the story of the annunciation to Mary, today we have just listened to the account of the annunciation to Joseph. Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels with an infancy narrative. The two reports, although they agree in substance, are very different from each other. While Luke’s narrative relates the events from Mary’s point of view, Matthew reports the same events from the perspective of Joseph.
Matthew, to avoid any misunderstanding, tells us straightaway that Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” So, we know what happened; but Joseph didn’t. The only thing he knew is that his betrothed was pregnant, and it had not been he to impregnate her. We can just imagine the predicament in which Joseph was at that moment. What to do? To expose her evident adultery, so abandoning her to the penalty prescribed by the law in these cases—that is, stoning? Yes, this is what the law provided for; but would it be fair? The gospel points out that Joseph “was a righteous man,” which means that he was a devout observer of the law; and for that reason he had to break his union with Mary. But, at the same time, Joseph knew that true justice involves compassion: he did not want to expose Mary to death. So, he “decided to divorce her quietly.” A respectable compromise, by which he put himself in order according to the law and, at the same time, let Mary escape death.
But it was not that God’s plan. Joseph’s resolution based itself on appearances: he thought that Mary had been unfaithful to him. But that was not true. We already know the truth: Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” But Joseph did not know; he could not know. So, there was need of a revelation that would let him know what had really happened. That is why, while sleeping, an angel appeared to unveil the mystery to him. The angel explained to Joseph how Mary became pregnant: “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” He invited Joseph to take Mary into his home and to behave as if he was the father of the child. But the angel did not tell Joseph who that child was. He told him what he would do: “He will save his people from their sins” (and for that reason Joseph had “to name him Jesus”). So, Joseph, unlike Mary, did not know the true identity of the child: he might imagine it, but it was not revealed to him. The evangelist gives us a clue: what is happening is the fulfillment of the prophecy we have heard from the first reading, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.”
But the one who unfolds to us the whole truth is Saint Paul in the second reading. That child, who precisely through Joseph can be considered a descendant of David—literally, “of the seed of David according to the flesh” (ex semine David secundum carnem)—in reality (“according to the Spirit”) is the Son of God (Filius Dei secundum Spiritum), pre-existent to his human conception. Jesus Christ did not start existing at the moment when he was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; he already existed from all eternity, since he was the Son of God. His human conception was actually an “incarnation,” which means—to take up Saint John’s expression—that “the Word became flesh,” assuming a human nature, he who already had the divine nature. That is the core of our faith; what distinguishes Christianity from any other religion is to believe that the Son of God has become man.