Dec 17, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent - "Be not afraid"

(painting by: Gaetano Gandolfi, 1790)

"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife."

Isaiah 7:10-14
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

The interpretation of dreams is an interesting study of the human imagination and how the brain basically never shuts itself off.  I think that’s a good thing considering what might happen if it did!

There are certainly many websites, books and maybe magazines that take a variety of positions about what we dream and the meaning of those dreams. Some raise very questionable interpretations; some alleged psychics present themselves as able to “channel” the dead who speak to the living. One radio personality even asserts to speak to your long dead dog or cat and tell you what they are “thinking and feeling” in the spirit world, even what your former pets are saying to you from the beyond. (There really is someone on the radio who claims this ability). Watch out for these deeply misguided folks.  

But do our dreams predict the future for us or do the weird and often disjointed images like climbing a mountain in your bathrobe or flying through the sky next to pigeons predict some future event? Sometimes unresolved anxiety is expressed in the state of unconscious sleep by running and ending nowhere or driving endlessly in frustration or waking in a state of fear or unresolved questions.

Yet, there is some legitimacy and good science to make sense from our dreams and with the right guide we may come to appreciate more deeply what is going on in our life and how we might find solutions. And there is certainly evidence that God may use those moments when our defenses are down to speak to us during prayer or even sleep. 

As we begin our last week of the Advent Season, the Gospel for this Sunday presents Joseph, the husband of Mary, who faces a troubling moral dilemma. We may say that Joseph provided a key supportive player role in the Christmas drama. 

Faced with the unexpected pregnancy of his intended spouse and the brutal lawful treatment of those caught in adultery, Joseph is sensitive to Mary’s reputation but wrestles with what is the right thing to do.  How can he take this woman as his wife?  He is not the father and she has violated their promised vows, or so he logically presumes.

The Gospels reveal very little about Joseph so we must read between the lines.  We read that Joseph was a good and an just Jewish man. We can imagine him among other Jewish men in the Synagogue and in Temple worship in Jerusalem. He must have known the prophecies of the coming Messiah.  He heard the words of Isaiah we hear in today’s first reading: “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  

What he personally believed about the meaning of those prophecies we do not know but most likely he was instilled with the popular belief that God would directly intervene to save his people at some future time and send a “Christ” the anointed Messiah. It is the eternal hope kept alive even to this day by the Jewish faith.

But, I think we can safely also presume that Joseph never imagined that in his simplicity and obscurity those very words of Isaiah would take flesh in his wife Mary.  That the two of them would become the human instruments through which God would directly enter the world through the ordinariness of sacred marriage and a human family.

So when Mary revealed her pregnancy to him, however he came to know, he would see it as a tragic turn of plans on a social and moral level that clearly troubled him deeply. That is until God directly sent his angel to deliver the truth to Joseph and gradually brought the light of understanding to this good man – at a time that Joseph’s defenses were down, in sleep.  

In a dream, and angel comes to Joseph: “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.” Then the angel quotes the verse from Isaiah we hear today and that which Joseph surely heard during synagogue worship at some earlier time. 

However, when Joseph awoke, there was no need for interpretation.  It seems there was no hesitation on his part as to his next move.  With trust, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” It says a great deal, without words, about the nature of this man who became the husband and presumed father of Mary’s child.  Then he passes in to silence and we hear essentially no more about him, except a reference by Mary when Jesus is found in the Temple by his frantic parents at the age of twelve (Lk 2: 48) and a mention of Jesus as “Joseph’s son” (Lk 4: 22) on his controversial visit to the synagogue in Nazareth as he begins his public ministry at the age of thirty.   

Yet, we know Christmas is almost here, we see signs of it everywhere, choirs are rehearsing, children are practicing roles as shepherds and magi and our homes and churches are nearly complete and ready for the joyful season. So, where does this all leave us just one week before the commemoration of the birth of Emmanuel, “God with us?” But, this great mystery of God’s incarnation is far more than externals.

Rightly, at this point, Joseph presents us with a model of receptivity.  He is an example of readiness with the posture of an open heart and mind.  Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded.”  Not only did he act with confidence to take Mary as his wife, he received the message of the angel with trust and faith as one from God.  

Joseph’s conviction was an internal one; a movement of his heart and mind to see the child of his wife as a sign from God of his mercy to humanity.  He welcomed Mary and her son. He was ready to receive them. He nurtured and protected them.

Can we do any less with the coming of the Christ?  Shouldn’t he also be for us God’s great sign of his mercy and one who will “save his people from their sins?” It is time to ready ourselves,  to open our hearts and to seek his mercy to make the path straight

Joseph was ready – are you?  Are we? 

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. 

(Opening Prayer for Sunday)

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