Last revised: December 18, 2019
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4TH SUNDAY IN ADVENT — YEAR A
RCL: Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
RoCa: Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, cites Isa. 7:3 on p. 151. His general summary of Isaiah is as follows:
Isaiah prophesied about 745-700 B.C.E. His vision of the new age includes a new Davidic king (Isa 9:1-7; 11:1-8), but there is no clear evidence that he knew or appealed to the Exodus-Sinai tradition. Likewise unclear is his view of how the sacrificial cult began. But there is no doubt that he condemns it in unmistakable terms. In fact, the connection of sacrifice and violence is made more explicitly than in Hosea and Amos. Those who bring “vain offerings,” who think YHWH delights “in the blood of bulls,” have hands “full of blood.” This image, whether hyperbole or not, pictures mass violence and murder. The prophetic alternative is an ethical exhortation given in a staccato series of brief imperatives:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Torah, which for Isaiah is synonymous with the word of YHWH (1:10), does not make victims in cult offerings or in any sort of violence. Rather, it draws all the peoples to it in peace and leads them to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). This vision of the new age mentions “the house of the God of Jacob,” undoubtedly a reference to the Temple, but quite strikingly there is no mention at all of a reconstituted sacrificial cult. The “house of Jacob” is associated with torah, with teaching, not with sacrifice (2:3). (pp. 151-152)
The wider context of Williams’ comments on Isaiah is chapter 5, a Girardian reading of biblical view on “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162.
3. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 149. In an essay giving an overview of the Hebrew Scriptures, Alison begins his introduction of Isaiah:
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is, in addition to being simply and of itself one of the great wonders of the world, something like the vital backbone to the whole process by which the Hebrew people gifted the world with authentic monotheism. A school of disciples somehow kept alive over a period of three hundred years, and maybe well longer, the vision which the Judaean court prophet Isaiah had begun to elaborate somewhere around 730 BC. This vision, of a power so much greater than any of the power politics going on around the royal court at the time as to lead to a deeply peaceful critical indifference to them (see Isaiah 7-8), was associated with Isaiahs priestly vision of the Lord surrounded by cherubim in the Holy Place of the Temple [quoting Isaiah 6.1-5].
The school of Isaiah sat with, and under, this vision, over the next several centuries, and over time it enabled them to reinterpret the relationship of all the ups and downs of history that befell Israel and Judah, finally leading to the extraordinary clarity which we see in what is called Second Isaiah, the post-exilic reworking of the vision. There it has become clear organically, from within the vision, that the Lord in question is not another god among the gods, but is in fact God who is not-one-of-the-gods, more like nothing at all than like a god. (pp. 149-50)
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from August 24, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), 8th in a series of eleven sermons on the prophets.
5. David Froemming, Salvation Story, the chapter on Isaiah, pp. 4-9.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 210:
Traditional theology has, at the level of the inner-trinitarian relationships, unambiguously placed the Holy Spirit after the Father and Son in the order of salvation events. The justification for this was the idea of the incarnation (John 1:1, 14; Phil. 2:5-8); and the revealed facts that it was first the Son and only later the Spirit who was sent and that at Pentecost Father and Son together poured out the Spirit. This view, although it is correct, remains however somewhat one-sided. In our investigations so far we have seen what an important role the Spirit played already in the event of the cross. This fact impels us to draw the conclusion in retrospect that even the synoptic report that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:9-11 and parallels) immediately after his baptism by John has a systematic significance, even if historical-critical exegesis likes to speak here of a later shaping by the community. Equally, it should be noted that according to all three synoptics Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit (Mark 1:12 and parallels). According to Luke, Jesus, taking up Isa. 61:1ff. at the beginning of his public ministry, spoke himself of an anointing by the “Spirit of the Lord” (Luke 4:16-21; see also Acts 4:27; 10:38). Paul emphasizes finally that “according to the Spirit of holiness” the crucified one was designated Son in power at the resurrection of the dead (Rom. 1:4; see also 1 Pet. 3:18). In accordance with these important utterances, Jesus was himself led by the Spirit of God during his whole earthly mission. From this point of view it appears that a priority of the Holy Spirit over the Son who became man is shown.
For the full context, see the section “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” pp. 209-217.
2. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #1.
Reflections and Questions
1. Vs. 5-6: “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ….” The notion of “obedience of faith” makes sense, I think, in light of mimetic theory in that the human problem is one of conflicting desires. Through Jesus Christ, the One who was obedient to God’s desire, the hope is for all people to become obedient to God’s desire, a loving desire to care for all of Creation. The hope is a oneness of desire for both Gentiles and Jews that comes under the category of “obedience.”
Obedience is not a popular idea under the umbrella of modern individualism, whose aim seems to be that everyone follow his or her own unique desires — an impossible goal according to mimetic theory. The very nature of human desire, according to the latter, is that it follows the desires of others. So the only way out of the ensuing conflict of desires is to follow the loving desire of the Creator, the One whose Love can uniquely contain all of our individual desires while bringing them into harmony.
1. I would suggest that Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy in 1:1-17 very much sets up his telling of Jesus’ birth in 1:18-25. The key is to notice that, within his naming of forty-two fathers from Abraham to Jesus, he inserts four of the mothers in addition to Mary. These four mothers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (“the wife of Uriah”). What do these four have in common? Some seemingly sexual impropriety in connection with them or the conceptions of the sons in the line of David. So the story of Jesus’ birth follows as the story of a seemingly improper conception. Mary is found to be with child before she and Joseph are married, and so “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” What a scandal! But Joseph is a righteous man, i.e., he plays by the rules of sacred society. Into this scandal comes the angel, who basically tells Joseph to drop all of this self-righteousness, because God is doing something special through this child.
M. Eugene Boring has a nice comment on Matthew 1:1-18 which lands on the fact that all four women are Gentiles, expressing Matthew’s inclusion on non-Jews. He writes:
The messianic story is inclusive, extending to women and men of all nations. Inclusiveness is not merely a contemporary buzzword. It is a deep note sounded in the first paragraph of the New Testament, a paragraph that sums up the story of the Old Testament, binding together the two books of the covenant (testament means “covenant” in both Hebrew and Greek) into one book of the story of God’s saving acts in history. God’s purpose is to include all. The story of redemption, the story of God’s reuniting of divided and scattered humanity after the judgment of the flood and the fragmentation and alienation of the tower of Babel (Genesis 6-11) began with God’s act of calling Abraham and Sarah and the promise of blessings for all peoples through them (Gen 12:1-3). As “son of Abraham,” Jesus is declared to be the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Gentiles.
This inaugural note of inclusiveness corresponds to the inclusiveness of the whole genealogy, which names five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Urlah,” and Mary. Since ancestry and inheritance were traced through the father’s line, reference to women in a genealogy was uncommon, but not unheard of. Since all of the women mentioned are involved in some sort of questionable sexual behavior, it has often been suggested that this was Matthew’s apologetic response to non-believers’ insulting versions of the story of Jesus’ birth from the virgin Mary. It could well be that, while not apologetic, Matthew is interested in affirming that the plan of God has often been fulfilled in history in unanticipated and “irregular” ways, as was the case in the birth of Jesus from Mary, and that Matthew is interested in showing that God worked through irregular, even scandalous ways, and through women who took initiative, like Tamar and Ruth. Yet the main reason for Matthew’s inclusion of these women corresponds to one of the Gospel’s primary themes: the inclusion of the Gentiles in the plan of God from the beginning. All of the men in Jesus’ genealogy are necessarily Jewish. But the four women mentioned, with the exception of Mary, are “outsiders,” Gentiles, or considered to be such in Jewish tradition. Just as the following story shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of both Jewish and Gentile hopes, so also the genealogy shows that the Messiah comes from a Jewish line that already includes Gentiles. (New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, p. 132)
1. René Girard, Things Hidden; see the sections “The Divinity of Christ” and “The Virgin Birth.”
2. Scott Cowdell, René Girard and the Nonviolent God; in two places Cowdell underscores the importance of the virgin birth for Girard: pp. 86-88, 207-09. He writes,
Staying with the theme of sacrifice and scapegoating, “late Girard” shows how Christian doctrine and mimetic theory interpenetrate in his thinking. He explains that
there are two radically opposed yet formally similar modes of divinity: the archaic, which arises directly from the efficacy of scapegoats; and the Christian, which arises indirectly, and paradoxically, from their inefficacy by virtue of the destruction of false gods. As against the partial, earthly, temporal and unjustly condemned scapegoats of all other religions, as Schwager observes, there is the perfect scapegoat, both fully human and fully divine. As against imperfect sacrifices, whose efficacy is temporary and limited, there is the perfect sacrifice that puts an end to all the others [Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes, 44].
Yet, for Girard, there is no neutral, social-scientific path to this insight apart from what the passion narratives reveal. As we noted in the previous chapter, Girard came to see sacrifice as so deeply rooted in human sensibility that the path out of a sacrificial mindset was only through a new form of submission to the harsh law of sacrifice — to a willing self-consecration by which others will be set free as the sacrificial mechanism is exposed. This was Girard’s point about Psalm 40 and its use in the book of Hebrews. Apart from this revealed breakthrough, social science cannot lead us beyond our unrecognized complicity in scapegoating [Ibid., 72]. It is always on the basis of this revealing, saving power that Girard makes his high assessments of Jesus Christ — his Christology is high, but functional. Without Christ there is no comprehensive revealing of the scapegoat mechanism [Ibid., 60], and apart from Christ any natural sense of God falls short of the true knowledge that comes with conversion away from a scapegoating mindset [Ibid., 94, where Girard is discussing Paul in Romans].
So, for instance, while liberal (and many feminist) Christians will not do so, Girard endorses the virginal conception of Jesus. As we have noted, he sees it as a powerful declaration that Jesus was conceived in peace, contrary to the mythological divine births that issue from sexual violence [Girard, Things Hidden, 220-23; When These Things Begin, 101]. To recognize Christ as God, then, is to recognize that he is the only being capable of transcending the false transcendence of violence [Girard, Things Hidden, 219]. (pp. 87-88)
Cowdell’s second explication of Girard on the incarnation is also very worthwhile but requires some setup. His primary answer of Girard’s theological critics is to use von Balthazar’s notion of Theo-Drama, and then Raymund Schwager’s adaption of the latter to elaborate a theology in a Girardian key. Within the portrait of the divine-human drama, Cowdell adds another concept from improvisational theater and performance, the notion of “overaccepting.” When a performer is improvising within a given drama, “overaccepting” neither blocks what others introduce to the drama nor simply accepts them if it would tend to move the drama in a direction against that of which the performer is trying to move. In short, it holds the ending of the drama as open while nevertheless working towards a certain end. Thus, all the sections of the final chapter, “Christ, the Nonviolence of God,” put forward an “overaccepting” in a theological portrait of the divine-human drama of history. (There are similarities of “overaccepting” to Hegel’s Aufheben, but striving to have it capture a more fully incarnational human history beyond an Idealist version based in the history of Ideas.) Here is Cowdell’s argument for “A High-but-Functional Christology: Overaccepting Mimetic Theory”:
Retracing the arc of Christological proclamation from the resurrection back to Jesus’s origins, Girard affirms the virgin birth as exonerating Jesus of complicity in the mythical world of divine births and the sacred violence from which they issue. He refers to the Johannine prologue (John 1:1-18), which names the world’s structuring by violence and then points beyond it [Girard, Things Hidden, 223; see also When These Things Begin, 101]. Following this logic earlier still, Girard even declares that Jesus is the Son of God from all eternity, as proclaimed by the New Testament and the Fathers, since Jesus could not have emerged from a world of violence knowing the true nature of that world as he did [Girard, Things Hidden, 218-19]. As Frederiek Depoortere summarizes Girard’s logic on the question of Jesus’s divinity, “such a person cannot be generated by a world completely dominated by violence. Consequently, the only logical conclusion is that Jesus was not an ordinary human being, but God incarnate.” From the midst of that world structured by violence — a violence that God in Christ set about undergoing and redeeming rather than accepting or blocking — emerges incarnational belief as a defining act of overaccepting.
For Girard, then, the divinity of Christ “is the only hypothesis that enables us to account for the revelation in the Gospel of what violence does to us and the accompanying power of that revelation to deconstruct the whole range of cultural texts, without exception” [Ibid., 219]. Note that this high-but-functional Christology is described here as a hypothesis, based on the illuminative force and interpretative fruitfulness that Jesus brings. And such interpenetration of theological and social-scientific language is quite fitting, according to Girard. He believes that “this is . . . the only time that this notion of a fullness of humanity that is also a fullness of divinity makes sense in a context that is as ‘humanist’ as it is ‘religious’” [Ibid., 216]. Here is the human-divine logic of double agency, of incarnation, of kenosis, and of Theo-drama, with God submitting to the constraints of a historical process that provides the only humanly appropriate setting for revelation. Thus the divine and the human are revealed together, the false sacred yields to the holy God, and humanity finds salvation while God finds vindication. As a result, we might even say that Christology is the over-accepting of anthropology. (pp. 208-09)
3. Robert Beck, Banish Messiah: Violence and Nonviolence in Matthew’s Story of Jesus, pp. 91-96, a section on “Matthew’s Genealogy (Matt 1:1-17)”; and pp. 97-104, a section on “Joseph’s First Dream: The Hero’s Mandate (Matt 1:18-25).”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 16, 2001 and sermon from December 23, 2001 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from December 23, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
6. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, sections on Advent-Christmas, pp. 88-94. He comments on this passage:
Joseph, of course, was placed in an equally disgraceful position. Being a “just man,” he resolved to divorce Mary privately. The Greek word dikaios, translated as “just,” is rich in meaning. It suggests that Joseph was a follower of the Jewish Law, which required he divorce a betrothed woman who had proven to be unfaithful, but also that Joseph was “just” in the broader sense of being sensitive to Mary and doing what he could to minimize the embarrassment for all. In a dream, an angel told Joseph the truth of what had happened and Joseph solidified his relationship with Mary and the child-to-come. Their child would grow up to occupy places of honor and shame to a much greater degree than they did. (p. 92)
Reflections and Questions
1. With the exegetical note above in mind, this text follows on last week’s “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized (skandalizo) by me.” See last week’s notes on the Gospel Lesson (Advent 3A) and the Girardian take on skandalon. Joseph, in obedience to the angel’s message, is not scandalized by the seemingly scandalous nature of Jesus’ conception and birth.
2. What is at stake in holding to the virgin birth? Let me suggest that our salvation depends on it to the extent that Jesus’ birth represents God’s intervention into nature in a decisive way.
On the Ecunet Girard htm list, I commented on the Genesis 3 story of the fall, that it represents the choice we have between following after God’s desire or a fellow creature’s desire. The former represents the possibility of a non-rivalrous desire; the latter represents a perpetual fallenness into rivalry. To which someone raised the question about what biology might have to say about this. Doesn’t biology show us a natural world which is dominated by the rivalry of the fall? Can non-rivalrous desire ever hold sway in nature with persistency?
I might have to answer “No” to such a question — except for the advent of the Christ into the world. Perhaps St. Paul in Romans 6 gives us a more accurate picture than Genesis 3, with his typology of the First Adam and the Second Adam. The First Adam is locked in sin and can’t get himself out. Only with the coming of the Second Adam can we find true liberation from sin. In Girardian terms, we are locked in a perpetual fallenness into rivalry with one another, and into our scapegoating solution to attain relative peace. This would seem to be part of our biology. Left to ourselves, we are locked into the biology of following the desires of fellow creatures.
Thus, it takes a divine intervention into biology itself to unlock the possibility of being able to follow God’s desire. We are created in God’s image. We are capable of responding to the true God with God’s loving desire. But biology is trapped into always falling short unless by some miracle God’s loving desire could actually come into biological form, becoming human. Then, our biology of following the desires of other creatures could at least follow the desire of the creature who embodies God’s desire, Jesus the Christ, the Second Adam.
How might we express such a miraculous divine intervention into human biology? “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary” might be the best way to express such a miracle.
What is at stake? The incarnated possibility of unlocking our biological potential to follow God’s desire by the incarnation of God’s desire into human biology. What’s at stake is our salvation via the incarnation of Christ.
4. In 2010 my sermon, “Welcoming Home the Spirit,” made use of John Shea‘s excellent resource The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers (pp. 43-48).