Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2016)
John the Baptizer, aunt Elizabeth’s son, the wild one with the strange clothes and weird diet has left the stage of Advent liturgy. Enter another character: Joseph, the carpenter, the quiet man.
If you are confused by today’s Gospel, perhaps it would help to know that in the Jewish culture of that time, marriages were arranged by the parents of the couple or by the village elders, often when the kids were less that seven years old.
When the girl was about twelve, the marriage [today we would call it the formal engagement] took place in the home of the bride’s father to ratify what had been decided some years before. The couple was then considered to be husband and wife. If the husband died, she was considered a widow.
The final stage of the wedding took place a year or two later when the bride was formally taken to the groom’s home to share a bed with him for the first time. At this point she still had to be a virgin or the marriage could be easily nullified. So, annulments go back before Jesus’ day. Jewish law also provided for that adulterous woman to be stoned to death.
Imagine yourself in Joseph’s sandals. Your fiancée has just said: “Joseph, there is something I need to tell you. I’m pregnant. . . No, It is by the Holy Spirit…” When you recover from the shock, you have three choices:
1. Believe her: Joseph would need tremendous faith in Mary to do that. There is no evidence to prove he did have that faith.
2. Not believe her, that is, as a follower of the law, a rule keeper, and break off the engagement. Expose her. Mary could be stoned to death for adultery, her presumed sin, according to “the law.”
3. Not believe her but decide to step beyond strict justice. Joseph decides to be compassionate, put her away quietly. This was joseph’s first position. Joseph may have taken a strong nightcap before bed that night.
We learn in scripture that difficult situations are sometimes resolved by a visit from an angel. In a dream an angel comes to Joseph and says: “fear not.” [Which implies that Joseph was afraid. What normal person would not be?] The angel tells Joseph that the pregnancy is God’s doing.
When Joseph awoke, he did not decide that the strange dream could be attributed to his nightcap or bad olives at dinner. Although Joseph believed that keeping the law was doing the will of God, he bravely stepped out onto a higher road to discern God’s will. He neither conformed to the law –to expose - Mary nor compassionately “put her aside.” Rather, he more compassionately took her into his home as his wife.
It takes a special courage for rule-keepers to stretch as Joseph did. We need only look to bureaucrats in any current institution to see how difficult it is for them to get past the letter of the law. Rule-keepers fear that if life isn’t codified, then at best, superiors will be upset if one does not follow the rules; at worst, chaos will prevail.
Joseph the carpenter crafts a creative response of love in a world of law.
To fulfill the will of God we sometimes have to see the truth and go beyond “the law.”
Joseph was part of the divine plan in two instances:
Joseph took Jesus as his foster son, establishing the prophesied lineage of David.
Joseph humbly said “yes” to resolve the paradox of Jesus’ being both divine and human without comprehending it.
Jesus learned more than carpentry from his foster father. He also learned about obedience as listening, about stepping out in faith - trust.
Jesus learned openness to new possibilities, new ideas, from Joseph and later would understand that all the answers are not in the law.
Jesus learned compassion from his foster father. Experiencing Joseph’s compassion helped Jesus to listen to people, to understand. Jesus would also act compassionately -- even act against “the law” in practicing compassion as an adult.
Joseph does not have one, recorded word in scripture. Almost nothing is known about him. Yet, he is held up to us as a model during Advent: a model of obedience / listening, of openness to new ideas. Of compassion, Pope John XXIII initiated the first change in the mass in four hundred years by inserting St. Joseph’s name in the Eucharistic prayer.
As the fourth Sunday of Advent passes, let us be aware of the two patron saints of advent who appear to be very different:
John the Baptizer: single-minded in his desire to do God’s will.
Joseph: a man who listened, who was open to new possibilities, who was compassionate.
If we become like John in becoming more single-minded, if we become like Joseph, more a listener to the father, being more open, more compassionate, we will have spent a wonderful Advent.