Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4 A - Dec 22, 2013

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Year A - Advent 4 - Sunday, December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Humanity and Divinity: Joseph and Jesus
  The pressure is growing as we enter the final stretch on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Both American culture and media have reached a fevered pitch in loading Christmas with false expectations of family harmony and good cheer. Hallmark defines the perfect Christmas, and people spend much time and energy trying to achieve this perfect experience. Among the niceties of the season, we forget just what a scandal the incarnation and birth of Jesus really is. Behind the pretty Hallmark scenes lies wonder alongside of scandal. Today’s Gospel reminds us that God’s work often upsets comfortable social expectations and conventions.
Every third year we hear Matthew tell the story. He writes that Joseph was a “righteous man”. Whatever he believed about Mary, his betrothed, he was not willing to shame her, either by putting her on public trial or trashing her reputation to clear his own. So he resolved to divorce her quietly, without casting blame, choosing the most humane of the customary legal options of his day. He was on the verge of doing so when an angel of the Lord spoke to him---and nothing was ever the same again. Joseph’s sense of right and wrong got lost in the divine shuffle. His righteousness gave way to God’s. He trusted what an angel told him in a dream, and took Mary home as his wife.

Christian tradition has never known quite what to do with Joseph. He disappears from the gospels before Jesus’ baptism and is never heard from again. One legend has it that he was already an old man, a widower with children, when he married Mary. Art, largely commissioned by the Church, supported this image. Paintings portray him as a kindly old man, beyond sexual thought or action, watching the world admire Mary and her child. This neutered version of Joseph certainly tells us more about the Church’s, rather than God’s attitude toward sex. But that’s a different story.

Joseph is usually an extra without lines in the drama starring Mary and the child.  But in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the main character. Gabriel speaks to him, not Mary, as he lies sleeping. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” This greeting is important. If the Messiah is to be born the Son of David, then this is the man he must be born to. The prophets said so, and Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, goes to great lengths throughout his Gospel to persuade us that what the prophets foretold has come to pass in Jesus. So for Matthew it is the annunciation to Joseph, not Mary, which is central. The whole experiment hangs on what happens with Joseph. If Joseph believes the angel, Mary will have a home and her child will be born the Son of David. But if he does not believe, then Mary is an outcast---either disowned or killed by her family for disgracing them and herself by her pregnancy.  

In Jewish law, paternity is not a biological issue but a legal one. Jewish law reads: “If someone says, “This is my son”, he is so attested.” Joseph becomes the child’s father the moment he says so. Joseph’s trust is as critical as Mary’s womb. It will take the two of them to give birth to this remarkable child: Mary to give him life, and Joseph to give him a name. This may all sound very quaint to our modern ears, but the heart of this story is much bigger and more profound---whether from Joseph’s perspective or from Mary’s.
It is about a person who wakes up one day to find their life wrecked: trust betrayed, name ruined, future revoked. It is about a person who surveys a mess not of their own making, and decides to trust that God is present in it. With every reason to disown it all, neither Joseph nor Mary do, they don’t walk away from it in search of a cleaner, more controlled and conventional life. They claim the mess, the scandal and the wonder. Mary gives it her body. Joseph gives it his name. They own the mess---they legitimize it---and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.

Child and Caregiver; Jesus and Joseph
Today Joseph is held up in the story as the one who is most like us, presented day by day with circumstances beyond our control, with lives we would may never have envisioned for ourselves, tempted to divorce ourselves from it all, when an angel whispers to us: “Do not be afraid, God is here. It may not be what you expected or planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it.”

That “if” is crucial. God’s “yes” depends on our own. God’s birth requires human partners, a Mary, a Joseph, a you, a me---willing to trust the impossible, willing to claim the scandal and wonder, to adopt it and give it our names. Amidst our less than perfect lives, God is about doing something new and wonderful. And not just in each one of us alone, but the whole Church, surveying a world that seems to have descended into chaos, and proclaiming over and over again to anyone who will listen that God is still with us, that God is still being born in and through the chaos and mess, and among those who will still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.  +Amen.

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