Advent Reflection – “God is With Us”

"St. Joachim and St. Joseph"., by Michael O'Brien. Courtesy of the author.

My father is an artist and once did a painting called “St. Joachim and St. Joseph” which I always thought was unusual. St. Joachim, the father of Mary, is shown in the painting with Joseph, his future son-in-law, to whom he is entrusting his daughter Mary, who’s depicted symbolically as a small white bird. It’s striking for its tenderness and the seriousness of the responsibility it implies.

What strikes me most of all, though, is the image of Mary. Both her father and her betrothed are acknowledging her as beloved, much like Israel was precious to God.

Israel was sometimes known in the centuries leading up to Christ as “Daughter Zion”, Zion being another name for Jerusalem, “Daughter” capturing the tenderness God felt for Israel. Mary becomes Daughter Zion personified, for Israel was the chosen people, the people from which Jesus was to emerge for the sake of the whole world.

The faith of Israel that had been nurtured for centuries is reflected in the girl from Nazareth, who, in the fullness of time, gives her consent to the inscrutable plans of God.

Joseph of Nazareth, the foster father of Jesus, has a discreet but similarly crucial role in the coming of the Messiah. We know him as a just man, who doesn’t want to expose Mary to ridicule and shame, and we can imagine the dilemma he wrestles with, the contradiction between the Mary he thought he knew and the fact that she was pregnant before they had come to live together.

Thus Joseph too has to give his consent to the inscrutable plans of God. He listens to the voice of an angel in a dream, who assures him that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” The angel goes on to tell Joseph that “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in intractable situations, impossible dilemmas. We can feel paralyzed since there is no rational way out of them. In times such as this, we must turn to God in prayer. God is master of the impossible; he can resolve apparent contradictions.

Consider Joseph’s response. He would have known the law and the prophets. When the angel reminds him of the mysterious prophecy from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us’”, somehow, by his faith, it clicks that Mary is the one fulfilling this prophecy.

We don’t listen to our dreams much today, but for the ancient people, they were legitimate channels through which the supernatural could speak. Joseph obeys – he obeys because he listened deeply – and takes Mary as his wife. Thanks to Mary and Joseph believing in the plan of God, God himself takes flesh in our world.


Video version here.

John O'Brien, SJ is a promoter of vocations for the Canadian Jesuits.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 10:07h, 18 December Reply

    Thank you John!

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