• Gabriel von Wendt

Matthew 1:18-23 - Is it Faith or Emotion?

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.

How can one measure the Spirit? You may have had the opportunity to witness “charismatic” spiritual events. Each time I find myself surrounded by the emotional outbursts and powerful expressions of faith that are typical for the charismatic prayer, I ask myself that question: How can one measure the Spirit? That is, how can you know whether something - a motion, an inspiration, an idea, an attitude - really stems from, or at least corresponds to the Holy Spirit?


I believe this question can also be found behind the lines of today’s Gospel. The Spirit moves where He wants, doing surprising things - among which the most astounding one of all took place in Mary's womb. How was Mary, how was Joseph to measure the truthfulness of the claim that this was the work of the Spirit?


I am standing in a crowd of people praying full-heartedly, with their arms stretched out, humming and chanting, weeping and laughing, slowly and then coming to life in the surge of the praise and worship music. I enjoy praying there, happy for the fact that we are all young and sincere here, savoring the prayerful atmosphere. And yet, in my mind rumor about fifteen worries on the lines of “aren’t we taking emotion for grace, excitement for sacrality, subjective for objective here?” I think you simply must ask yourself these questions. You must discern thoroughly before you put your faith into something. Believing and trusting does not just mean “letting yourself go”. In the same way, how can Mary and Joseph have been sure of the authenticity of it all? How did they discern?

Is it faith or emotion?

I think the “measure” for the Spirit is Jesus Himself. It is His Spirit after all and He is the one to understand Him correctly. Just like nobody can worship Jesus if not moved by the Spirit, nobody can embrace the Spirit if not in Christ. In fact, by trusting that Mary's pregnancy was the Spirit's doing, Joseph fundamentally made an act of faith in Jesus, one of the first of such acts in history. He didn't simply think: “Well, it’s a thing of the Spirit, and therefore no logic is required and I’m fine with whatever…” On the contrary, the angel explained to him who Jesus was based on Scripture and Joseph believed that. He bend His knee to the Incarnate Savior; he believed in the advent of the Messiah, he believed in God’s promise. Only as a consequence, he felt sure about a holy spirit being behind the events. The authority of the angel alone was not enough: the fascinating experience of a vivid dream, the supernatural taste of an apparition, the charming experience of being special. No, Joseph did not believe in his experience alone. His way of “measuring the spirit” was to discern: “I believe in Christ, the Messiah. this spirit corresponds to Christ; it is His Spirit. So I trust in Him.”

Nobody can embrace the Spirit if not in Christ

The Holy Spirit moves where He wants. In order to be docile in His hands one needs to be His instrument. And in order to be His instrument, you must be in Christ. Christ became flesh precisely to become palpable for you, “measurable” so to speak, so that you can direct your trust without confusion at something objective. In this sense, Jesus left us the clearest instruments to “measure the Spirit”: His word, His Sacraments, His Church. Being in Christ means being united to Him in the Church. This was one of the key indications with which He forged the community of the first apostles: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). So the measure to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit is Christ. And the measure for being in Christ is the Church.