St. Joseph and the fears of Christmas

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4th Sunday of Advent, Year A: December 18-19, 2010
Isa 7:10-14; Ps 24:1-6; Rom 1:1-7; Matt 1:18-24

The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” But St. Joseph is afraid, very afraid, early in today’s Gospel reading. He was confused. He didn’t know what to do. The news he had received certainly wasn’t “tidings of comfort and joy” for him. Instead, we might say it was an earthquake.

Why was that? Why was he afraid? Three reasons. First, St. Joseph, we might say, was a man who was born with a target on his back. Because he was a “son of David.” He was a direct descendant of David, who had been king over Israel about 1000 years before that. And God had promised David that his descendants would rule as kings forever, if they obeyed his law—and they had, for about 400 years, until the Babylonian Empire took over.

Now the Babylonian Empire, and then the Persian Empire after them, at first tried making the Davidic king into their local governor, under their empire for that region. But they found out that it didn’t work; it didn’t work at all; because, as soon as they turned their back, this Davidic governor and the People of Israel under him would start a revolt! So they decided: that’s it; no more sons of David as governors. Really, no more. And if any Son-of-David would-be-Messiah stuck up his head, any empire that knew what it was doing would take care of him, fast and finally.

Which meant that, if any descendants of David actually wanted to live out their lives, they were going to have to lead a nice, quiet life; out of the public eye; hidden. Not attracting attention; not raising the hopes of people around them, or bringing soldiers to hunt them down. Indeed, it probably would be a good idea, if you were a son of David, to get as far away from Jerusalem as you can; to live in a nice, quiet, small, out-of-the-way place; a place like Nazareth.

And so Joseph had led that quiet, hidden life. Until his fiancée Mary showed up pregnant.

They were betrothed, we read, which was a much more formal version of being engaged than we know now. It involved a legal contract and could therefore only be broken by a formal divorce. Betrothal was something that they did in their culture. Something they did not do commonly, but seems to have been the case, was that it seems that Mary and Joseph had been planning already, once they were married, never to engage in marital relations, so that Mary could consecrate her virginity to the Lord. This is something that is not spelled out in Scripture, but is seems implicit in what Mary said to the angel in the Gospel of Luke. But, whether or not this is exactly what they were planning, surely Joseph knew that Mary was a very holy, very good, young woman.

And then she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. And that brought on his other two reasons for being afraid.

What did Joseph think was going on in Mary’s pregnancy? Many who read this passage will interpret it as meaning that Joseph was suspecting Mary of sexual sin—of having conceived this child with a man to whom she was not married. In this interpretation, perhaps she did not explain to Joseph what happened. Or perhaps she did, and he just couldn’t believe her. Sure, she had always seemed like such a good and holy woman. But a virgin conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit? Surely that would have seemed impossible. That isn’t where babies come from! Everybody knows that!

That’s one interpretation, and one cause for fear. The other interpretation is that he did believe her—that he did believe that she was carrying a child conceived by the Holy Spirit—and that made him afraid. For the Jewish people were very, very conscious of the awesome holiness of God; and of what it took to be able to approach him with appropriate reverence. They had the ritual purity laws for everyone. They had the requirements for how the priests had to prepare themselves to offer sacrifice in the Temple. There were stories of things like people who had been struck dead just from touching the Ark of the Covenant. If Mary was really carrying a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, then she was a living Ark of the Covenant. How could Joseph think of living in the same house, as husband and foster father, of either one of them? How could an ordinary man live so close to things or people who were so holy? Indeed, wouldn’t God want Joseph out of the picture, if he had chosen Mary for such a special and holy task?

So which one of these was Joseph afraid of? That Mary had fallen into sexual sin? Or that God had miraculously intervened? My opinion is that he wasn’t sure. He was afraid of both of them! He was torn between both possibilities. It probably was eating at him: “What if it’s sin? But what if it’s a miracle?” He could look at both possibilities; and the one thing he knew was that, under both possibilities, he was afraid and all of his self-preservation instincts told him: back away; leave Mary behind; end this betrothal now. And so we read: he 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.” And suddenly Joseph was in a different place.

What did the angel’s message do for him? It told him that Mary had not committed sexual sin, and there was no other man involved. So it took care of one of the three fears. It also told him that God did not want him to walk away—as reasonable of a guess as that might have been—but that God really did want him to go ahead and be the Virgin Mary’s husband.

But this message from the angel did not resolve all of his fears. Instead it actually told him that a couple of his fears were quite real and that he was going to need to walk right into them. He really was in the presence of consuming fire, the everlasting flames, as the prophet Isaiah put it, of God’s awesome holiness. His fiancée really was a living, walking Tabernacle of the glory and the presence of God. And he really would be living with her in the same house, and with the Son of God, for the rest of his earthly life.

And surely Joseph could guess that, on the path he was being called to, he wasn’t going to be able to escape the notice of the Roman government nearly as successfully as he had been up till now. Sure enough: before very long angels were giving shepherds directions to their house; a star was bringing Magi from the east; and, yes, King Herod was sending his troops to kill Joseph’s foster son; and Joseph was having to help both of them to escape to Egypt to save his son’s life. It is one thing to try to stay safe when the government might think that you might think that you’re the Messiah; what if you know that your foster son is the Messiah?

“Tidings of comfort and joy”? Not for St. Joseph. For him, that first Christmas was an earthquake; and it changed the rest of his life.

But he did it. Even though he found out that some of his fears were absolutely true and that he was going to have to walk into what he was afraid of—he did it. We read: when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. Surely that was the bravest thing he had ever done. But he was a son of David; and he did have it in him to obey the Lord in this way.

And did you know that each of you is a son or daughter of David, by adoption? For when you were baptized into Christ, you were adopted in Christ. You were adopted as a son or daughter of God; and you were adopted as a son or daughter of David—of that king to whom God made those promises. And so you have it in you to do whatever confusing thing, whatever fearful or dangerous thing, that God asks of you. When Christ asks you to bring his truth to someone, his holiness, his loving rule, you have it in you to carry that out. Just like St. Joseph did.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict had the baptismal name of Joseph. And as we consider the coming feast of Christmas, and what it means to us, let us consider what our Holy Father has said: “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

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Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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