Professed religious take three vows: chastity, poverty and obedience.
Guess which one is the hardest to keep? Believe it or not, it is the one of obedience. When you think of what original sin was all about, you realize that it is in our wounded nature to resist submitting to anyone.
Speaking of obedience and how outdated this term has become in our western world, what is relevant is the fact that the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent are themselves ridiculously outdated, passé and laughable in their apparent irrelevance.
Here are some samples of irrelevance: Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus. The obedience of faith. Called to be holy. Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.
Why would our Church be so old-fashioned?
Well, to people who mistake freedom for license to do as one darn pleases, the word obedience sounds not only outdated but also hollow and unfair. Yet, to those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to those who know the Word spoken by the Father on Christmas Day, obedience is a goal to be reached, an attitude to strive for, a condition leading to genuine freedom.
We heard ad nauseam that old cliché repeated after heartwarming, fuzzy, quaint stories about Christmas: “And that’s what Christmas is all about.”
Well, today we are invited to add obedience to “what Christmas is all about.”
Consider Isaiah 7: 10-14. The enemies had moved too close to the walls of Jerusalem, and Ahaz’s heart had become thoroughly frightened. His mind began to swirl with countless scenarios looking for the safest way of fending off the enemy. It was at this point that God himself ordered the king to trust in him and not in diplomacy, alliances, treaties, or anything else merely human. But, noticing the king’s reluctance, God ordered him to ask for a sign, any sign, of his presence and protection. We know that the king tried to wiggle out of that order with a lame excuse: he had already decided to disobey God and to ask Assyria for help. That for him was a much safer option. Fool!
At this point we would all expect that God would come up with such an awe-inspiring sign that the king’s resistance would fade away.
God offers the most ordinary sign: one of the royal princesses will get pregnant and bear her first child, a son.
The shift rests in the name of the child: Emmanuel, God is with us. The significance of this shift? God requires obedience, but not just plain obedience between two human beings, but rather the obedience of a creature who believes firmly, unwaveringly, that the most ordinary is still ordinary, remains ordinary and yet, at the same time, it becomes extraordinary because our Creator God is the hidden Agent of such event.
We should contrast, then, the Gospel passage from Matthew (1:18-24) with the reading from Isaiah. Joseph, unlike Ahaz, is a righteous man. Faced with a clear fact, a fact like many others, alas, too ordinary: his fiancée’s pregnancy by someone else, amid excruciating pain and inner devastation, plans to do a most heroic, honorable thing: divorce her quietly lest she might be stoned to death for adultery.
This gospel passage displays Joseph’s entire disposition of true obedience to God. Something as flimsy, as unreliable as a dream is sufficient to get him to toss aside his honorable plan, swallow his pride, and see that this pregnancy, seemingly so ordinary, so natural was indeed entirely God’s doing. He is ordered to act in a most conventional way, as all proud Jewish dads would: to pick up, off the floor, the newborn baby and, while doing so, give him the name Jesus, as commanded by God, thus legally, officially, making him his own child in the eyes of all villagers.
Another case of true obedience? Paul, too, had an ambitious yet quite natural design: to do all he could to wipe the fledging new sect of renegade Jews (the Christians) off the face of the earth. What could be more natural, more ordinary than to do all things deemed necessary to stump out a group that was threatening the existence of the Hebrew faith? For awhile Paul resisted God’s command to switch side; so God admonished him by saying that it is hard to kick against the goad (see Acts 26:14). Thus, Paul gave himself wholeheartedly to Christ. He surrendered his plans to Jesus’ and became totally obedient to Christ to the point of identifying himself as a slave of Christ.
We know that a slave surrenders his will to his master’s, usually by coercion, against his will. But it is not the same for those who are called to be holy and to assume the very nature of God.
For all these iconic Advent figures (and in these days we were exposed to many of them: from John the Baptist to Joseph, to Paul and to Mary) obedience is a free act of surrendering the totality of one’s heart to God. It is the crowning of total freedom that occurs when one realizes his/her own insignificance vis-à-vis God’s greatness, majesty and unfailing love. This total and unconditional surrender happens as soon as one feels that he/she is set free by the God who has come to dwell among His people. It happens as soon as one becomes totally, unequivocally convinced that God’s choices for his/her life are the best possible—by far. This demands unshakable faith in God who can and does change the most ordinary into the most extraordinary.
Thus I ask you to pray for me this Christmas to feel comfortable in my surrender. I promise to do the same for you so that, if this is what you desire, you too may choose to be “a slave of Christ.” May you do, as Joseph did, and obey God’s order for you. And may you also say with Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord may it be done to me according to your word.”