Dec 21, 2013

4th Sunday of Advent: Joseph, the righteous man of God

St. Joseph's dream
de Champagne

Is 7: 10-14
Rm 1: 1-7
Mt 1: 18-24

This last Sunday before the celebration of the Christmas season begins, offers us a very human insight into an important figure that played a significant role in the birth of Jesus and beyond – Joseph, the husband of Mary. 

Joseph is silent throughout the Gospels so whatever he may have thought we can only speculate.  Yet, we can probably assume that what he felt when the news of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was made known to him, how we don’t know, his reaction surely was what any intended spouse would have felt – disappointment and confusion.  Who was the man that Mary had relations with? Why would she have done such a thing as she was betrothed to him? 

Betrothal in ancient times was the final step before marriage.  The couple did not yet live together as husband and wife but the betrothal contract could only be broken through a legal contract. Whether the couple loved each other or not was less important that the financial arrangements between each of their families were worked out in an equitable manner.  However, whether a projection of modern expectations or pious sentimentality, Joseph was presumed to have feelings for Mary and their upcoming wedding was something both were anticipating with joy.

Nonetheless, our Gospel this Sunday offers a description of Joseph that is admirable – that he was a “righteous man.” Joseph was an upright Jew, faithful to the sacred law and lived by that law in good example.  So we read of his reaction to Mary’s pregnancy:”. . .  Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly . . .”

According to the law of their time, Mary was subject to public ridicule and shame or even worse and it was Joseph’s responsibility to inform her father that his daughter was pregnant by some other man.  Joseph, because of his obvious respect for Mary, intended to do his best to hush this up quickly so that whoever is the father of Mary’s child may be free to come along and take Mary to be his wife. 

In the midst of this human dilemma, God steps in. And the Gospel tells us of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Joseph in a dream.  “Have no fear . . .” the angel assures Joseph.  In other words, God asks a mighty thing of Joseph – to take this child which is not his own flesh and blood and the child’s mother into his home to care for them and to unite with Mary as her husband.  Mary has conceived in a mysterious way, by the Holy Spirit’s intervention.  God has a plan far beyond what Joseph had expected. 

Our first reading from Isaiah the prophet speaks of the perfect King of Israel who would finally come.  Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign from God but God is not stopped.  The virgin will conceive and bear a son whose name would be “Emmanuel” - God with us.  This foreshadowing of Mary’s conception and the child she would bear is where Joseph is positioned to now step in as the earthly protector and provider of this Holy Family, as we call them.  When you stop for a moment and reflect on Joseph’s role here and all that Israel had hoped for over hundreds of years, it is tough to get one’s mind around this whole mystery.

So, with Christmas right around the corner it may indeed beg us to look beyond the sweetness of Christmas.  The lights, trees, cards, manger scenes, beautiful sacred music, cute songs like “Santa Baby” or the very weird “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” and good cheer are all a wonderful part of this time and season.

While the strain between secular and sacred challenges our Christian sensibility the real mystery is profound. Mary and Joseph were not pastel colored holy cards, stiff plaster statues, or bright stained glass images.  They were flesh and blood human beings whose lives were profoundly affected by God’s intervention in human history.  It was and always will be all about Jesus.  Mary and Joseph stand as examples of cooperation with God.

While God asks far less of us than he did of Joseph and Mary, he asks nonetheless.  In our second reading from Romans, Paul speaks of himself as the “slave” of Christ Jesus.  Paul knew that his entire life was to be “set apart for the gospel of God . . .”

How far am I willing to go when I sense that God is asking something of me?  How will I know?  In a dream – perhaps but maybe not.  What or who might be the sign of God’s presence in my life? What part of me still needs to embrace the gospel of God? 
Joseph, courageous and faith filled righteous man of God, pray for us.
Pour forth, we beseech you O Lord,
your grace into our hearts,
that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son
was made known by the message of an Angel,
may by his Passion and Cross
be brought to the glory of his Resurrection,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Collect for Sunday)