Sunday, December 18, 2016

Archbishop's Homily: Meditating on St. Joseph as Christmas Draws Near

 Archbishop Miller was to have celebrated Mass at our parish this morning with the members of the permanent diaconate communitydeacons, candidates, aspirants and their wives and children but the steady snowfall kept him (and many of our parishioners) away. When the Archbishop let me know he could not be here, I had the presence of mind to ask him to send me his homily. Given the weather, I intended to shorten it, but after realizing its richness and beauty, I delivered it word for word, and have never had so many requests for copies!

Here are the Archbishop's words:

         As the days of Advent dwindle away and Christmas comes ever closer  – just one week from today – and we remain largely consumed by Christmas shopping, preparations and parties, the Church offers us an opportunity, through today’s Liturgy, to reflect on the meaning what is happening all around us.
         Like the solicitous Mother she is, the Church constantly calls us back to the heart of things, not by belittling the “spirit of Christmas” that fills us, but by inviting us to ponder the more profound reasons for our celebration, the ultimate reason why Christmas is a time which kindles in believers and non-believers alike joy, generosity and renewed hope in a sometimes dark world.
         Our Christmas cards, stories and other ways of celebrating Christmas concentrate on the Mother and Child.  And rightly so.  Early representations in art of the Nativity, and many even today, place Joseph purposely in the background, perhaps to remind us that he was not the human father of Jesus.  He is portrayed as a kind of silent observer of the great Mystery of the Incarnation, of the Son of God’s assuming a human nature, rightly ceding center stage to Jesus and Mary.  Indeed, the Preface of today’s Mass tells us that in these last days before our celebration, we accompany Mary who bore the Saviour in her womb, in that beautiful phrase of the Preface, “with love beyond all telling.”  Yet, we cannot forget about Joseph, thinking about his role in the events surrounding the Birth of Christ and what he – the husband and guardian of the Child – means in the drama of the Incarnation.
         Fortunately, today’s Gospel lends us a hand in this regard with its account of what is often called “the Annunciation to Joseph.”  Unlike St. Luke’s better known account of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Nazareth, which we recall in the first joyful mystery of the Rosary, St. Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ conception puts Joseph at the center of attention. 
         Mary’s Pregnancy
         For this reason, therefore, let’s establish a kind of spiritual conversation with Joseph, to give him his due.  He can help us to understand and live to the full the great mystery of the upcoming feast.
         In Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, marriage was a sacred act, a sharing in God’s own faithfulness – as it remains today, even if this is increasingly belittled.  The marriage custom in the first century was that a young woman, at about the age of puberty, would be promised to a husband, usually several years her senior, in a marriage arranged by her parents.  Technically they would be “married,” though we would say “engaged,” but they would not yet live together as husband and wife.  Jewish Law was especially strict in insisting that the couple remain chaste, having no sexual relations, during this first stage of “marriage.”  The young woman would continue to live with her parents, and the young man go about setting up a home and securing an occupation so as to be able to support his wife once they would begin  living together as man and wife.
         When today’s Gospel opens, it seems as if Mary had broken the Law, at least as far as the townspeople could see: “she was found to be with child” (Mt 1:18) – but she had not yet taken up residence with Joseph.  Talk, undoubtedly sometimes vicious, about her pregnancy would have been inevitable in a village as small as Nazareth.  Along with Joseph they would have borne the brunt of malicious gossip.
         Joseph did not know how to deal with Mary’s “astonishing” motherhood.  Certainly he would have been troubled, and surely disappointed in Mary.  But he reacted to this unwelcome news like a man of exceptional tenderness and self-restraint “since he must have been free of that most tyrannical passion, jealousy.”[1]
         Joseph, certain that the child was not his, faced a dilemma.  If he wasn’t the father, who was?   In order to save his own reputation as an upright man, he could have demanded an inquiry.  But if Mary were to be accused of adultery, it would have meant her public shame.  However, “being a righteous man,” Joseph decided to “dismiss her quietly” (Mt 1:19); that is, he wanted to avoid a public inquiry which would have left her in an awkward and vulnerable situation.  Quite simply, he loved her.
         Joseph, at an undoubtedly dark moment in his life was willing to take the problem upon himself, letting people accuse him of being a loser, of refusing to take responsibility for the child he had fathered.  Joseph was not only kindly to Mary, like a good husband, he was willing to take the suffering of others upon himself, to do all he could to relieve the pain of a troubling situation.[2]
         But, as so often happens in all our lives, God intervened.  The Lord comes to our rescue.  Just as Joseph had resolved to quietly end the relationship (Mt 1:20), and while he was asleep and dreaming, we have the annunciation to Joseph.  The “Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Mt 1:20-21).
         The divine messenger announced to Joseph the mystery of Mary’s astonishing motherhood.  While remaining a virgin, she who was lawfully his “wife” has become a mother through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Moreover, Joseph was to give her Son, not his flesh and blood, his name: Jesus, which means “God saves.”
         It is to Joseph that the Angel of God entrusts the responsibilities of being an earthly father to Mary’s Son.  “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (cf. Mt 1:24).  “This just’ man, who, in the spirit of the noblest traditions of the Chosen People, loved the Virgin of Nazareth and was bound to her by a husband’s love, was once again called by God to this love.”[3]
         What does Joseph tell us?
         Joseph’s Trust in God
         Despite this divine intervention of “telling” him what was happening, it is not too difficult to imagine that Joseph was still puzzled, not yet able to take in the enormous meaning of the mystery of Mary’s motherhood.   .  He would barely have grasped the significance of what was happening in his life, upset from his planned trajectory of a fruitful fatherhood.  But he had faith; he trusted in the Lord.  And he showed that trust through his obedience.  Like his wife, Joseph showed a readiness of will, an interior “fiat” like hers, “let it me done unto me according to your will” (Lk 1:38) with regard to what God had asked of him through the Angel.[4]  As a couple they trusted in the Lord God.
         Recall, though, that Joseph’s trust in God, like that trust we are called to, is a response to God’s first entrusting himself to us.  Have you ever thought of that?  This is what we celebrate at Christmas: God’s entrusting himself to us as a needy Child.  He entrusted himself to a teenage girl’s body for nine months, and then he entrusted himself to a Mother’s care and to a foster father who probably never quite understood who he was or what he was about.  He then entrusted himself to his twelve intimate friends, his Apostles and disciples, one of whom sold him for silver and another who denied he knew him.  He entrusted himself to the Roman soldiers who crucified him.[5]
         If the Eternal Son of the Father, the One “through whom all things were made,” can entrust himself to us in the Child born in the manger, can we not also, like Joseph, entrust ourselves to him?
         And this trust in God does not mean we will be free from discouragement, lapses and falls.  Think again of Joseph.  Even if we assume that Joseph was happy with the prospect of being a foster father to this future Saviour of his people, things did not work out all that well.  In fact, just about everything got botched up.  Instead of security and comfort, he and Mary soon found themselves facing a treacherous journey during the last stage of her pregnancy.  They would have no suitable place to stay, no family or friends around. The earliest days would be full of fear and flight.  The first ceremony in the temple would be marred by the ominous prediction of Simeon that the Child Jesus would he rejected and his wife Mary would have her very soul pierced.
         After the early years of migration and displacement, even when the family finally settled down, there was more trouble.  The lad would he lost in Jerusalem and, after a three-day search, he would show up reminding them that he had another “Father” who made a greater claim on him.
         Still, Joseph is the model of the good provider, the protector, taking sorrow upon himself, and faithful.   He believed.  He trusted, even when it seemed as if things weren’t working out.  Whatever he may have felt, as an earthly father he must have died a thousand deaths caring for his wife and child, both of whom he had accepted in faith as belonging finally to One other than himself.  So it is with every true parent, every true spouse.
         Let us prepare ourselves, dear friends, to entrust ourselves with fresh hope this Christmastide to Jesus whom Mary carried in her womb and Joseph safeguarded with his silent strength.

✣ J. Michael Miller, CSB
Archbishop of Vancouver 

The icon of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus is the work of the gifted Canadian artist Michael O'Brien.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 35.
[2] Cf. Francis, Morning Meditation (18 December 2014).
[3] St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 19.
[4] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, 2-3.
[5] Cf. Walter J. Burghardt, Speak the Word with Boldness (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1994), 11.

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