December 19, 2021
Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
Today’s sermon is titled, On Joseph.
People tend to collect all manner of things, it seems. I suppose our brains are hardwired to hunt and to gather. After all, for millions of years, the survival of our species depended on our ability to successfully hunt and gather big things like wooly mammoths and little things, too, like berries and mushrooms. These days most of our essential hunting and gathering happens at the market or a local farmstand, but we hunt and gather other things, too…things that might not be quite so essential.
For example, I can not resist a well-crafted silver spoon, but how many spoons does one person need? I have friends and family that collect china, socks, building supplies, earrings, boats, flags, pencil sharpeners, and cats. One couple I know collected creches wherever they went on their travels. They traveled extensively and collected creches made of bamboo, a wide variety of woods, coconut fiber, paper mache and clay. I asked my Friend how many they had; she could not tell because she was always giving them away. Last week I was gifted this creche made of wood. It must have been crafted in South America because present in the nativity scene with Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, are two large birds and one is definitely a condor.
The word creche comes from the Latin cripia, meaning “crib, stall, or manger.” It was St. Francis of Assisi who, in the 1200s, staged the first documented creche in a cave in Italy. He used a living ox and donkey around a manger that held a newborn babe. Hundreds of years later, during the Renaissance in Europe, the practice of fashioning three-dimensional representations of the nativity became popular and over time nearly every church and cathedral had a creche, usually made of marble, venetian glass, or porcelain. Around this time, in households across Europe, creches were made of crude clay and even bread dough.
No matter what materials have been used over the centuries, what has consistently been portrayed is the same…at least two figures, Joseph and Mary, turned to face their newborn baby boy. The scene is idyllic. Like most idyllic scenes, there is more to the story.
This week we heard the reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. There are only two places in the scriptures where the birth of Jesus is referenced. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest Gospel, does not mention the birth at all. In the Gospel of Luke, the focus is on Mary and her side of the family, and in Matthew it is the opposite. The Gospel of Matthew begins with 16 verses of genealogy that covered nearly 2000 years in order to prove that Joseph, father of Jesus, was a descendent of King David. We were spared that long reading of genealogy today and gifted a concise narrative, one that places Joseph in the center of the story.
This is important. Joseph is important. The order of events, as outlined in our reading, reveal a great deal about the moral character of Joseph. We read first that Joseph and Mary are engaged but not yet living with one another when Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” According to the law in Deuteronomy 22, Joseph would be required to return Mary to the doorstep of her father where she would be stoned. The same sentence is given to adulterers, both male and female, after marriage, according to the same law.
Joseph disregards this law. We read in verse 19 that Joseph is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” This is an important point of order here that we should not miss. Joseph discovers that Mary is with child and he is in an impossible situation. Either he follows the law, as is the custom, and saves his reputation or he spares Mary and suffers his measure of public ridicule and disgrace.
Friends, we must remember the context of this story. It seems nonsensical to our 21st century way of looking at the world, but for Joseph, and for Mary, their well being was inextricably tied to their good standing in their communities. Follow the law and honor the family above all else.
Joseph makes a different decision. Joseph makes a radical decision. He decides not to follow the law and instead decides to “dismiss her quietly.” Then, after making this decision, after making this decision not to follow the law, not to protect himself, not to protect his image and his reputation and instead protect Mary…then he hears the message in his dream that says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
Joseph has already done the difficult work of deciding to go against what is in his own best self-interest. Joseph has already put Mary and the baby’s welfare over his own. It is then, in this moment, in his own point vierge, his own virgin point where he sets aside who he thinks he is supposed to be and instead allows himself to, with the grace of God, become more than he was, to become greater than he was…it is then, and only then, that he hears the message we all so often long to hear, “Do not be afraid.”
It was Father Richard Rohr who enlightened this part of the story for me. I had never before thought about how Joseph’s act of faith came before the words of assurance, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph took the step and then he was supported in full. How wise we would be to remember this, Friends. How wise we would be to cultivate the caliber of faith where we could take action with the assurance that we would have what we need to see it through. Father Richard Rohr counsels us, “You hear and you receive what your heart is already prepared to hear and receive.”*
In these final days of Advent, leading up to the beginning of Christmastide, I pray we will bring the courage of Joseph more closely into the birth narrative and more closely into our own lives. When we see his figure in creches large and small, may we remember the gift he gave of himself. May Joseph’s determination to do what he knew was right and kind and compassionate influences the choices we will make in this season and forevermore.
Before I close, I want to share with you, belatedly, that Pope Francis had declared 2021 to be the Year of St. Joseph. Perhaps Pope Francis, a year ago, recognized that our world was in sore need of righteous leadership that placed the welfare of others above self-interest. Perhaps Pope Francis looked around the globe at authoritarian trends and knew that humanity was starving for a model of selfless service like we see in St. Joseph.
Hear these words of Pope Francis who calls us to “imitate [Joseph’s] virtues and his zeal.” The following is from the Apostolic Letter Pope Francis wrote nearly one year ago:
I would like to share some personal reflections on this extraordinary figure [St. Joseph, who is] so close to our own human experience. My desire to do so increased during these months of pandemic, when we experienced, amid the crisis, how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked. Doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caregivers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests, men and women religious, and so very many others. They understood that no one is saved alone… How many people daily exercise patience and offer hope, taking care to spread not panic, but shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday ways, how to accept and deal with a crisis by adjusting their routines, looking ahead and encouraging the practice of prayer. How many are praying, making sacrifices and interceding for the good of all”. Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all.
Joseph found happiness not in mere self-sacrifice but in self-gift. Our world today… has no use for tyrants who would dominate others as a means of compensating for their own needs. It rejects those who confuse authority with authoritarianism, service with servility, discussion with oppression, charity with a welfare mentality, power with destruction. Every true vocation is born of the gift of oneself, which is the fruit of mature sacrifice.” **
In closing, I lift up the mature sacrifice of Joseph. We could use a little mature sacrifice, (or a lot) this Christmas. All change begins within us, Friends. In the gesture we see in Joseph and Mary as they are always turned to face the Christ child, may we remember to turn our hearts and minds to the same source of light. As Father Richard said, “You hear and you receive what your heart is already prepared to hear and receive.” Let’s ready ourselves to receive the light of Christ’s love this Christmas. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: God of all seasons, bless us as we near the time of Jesus’s birth. Strengthen us to do the inner work of healing so that our hearts can hold more love, our minds can discern truth from fallacy and our actions can be an unmistakable testament to all the goodness we can imagine. Help us to feel worthy of unconditional love so that we may more freely love others, especially those who differ the most from ourselves. Through your grace, remind us that as we strive to make our world a better place, there are unseen forces working with us to do the work of Christ. This I pray with all my heart. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with this Christmas blessing written by an anonymous author:
May you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the commitment of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the magi, and the peace of the Christ child.