Sunday, December 19, 2010

God With Us

This story of St. Joseph [Matthew 1:18-24] always makes me think of my grandmother, who was born in Sicily in the late 1870s and died in New York City in 1967. She gave birth to a total of 9 children, of whom 6 survived to adulthood. But there were 3 boys, each of whom had Giuseppe (Joseph) as one of his names, and each of whom died within 1 year of his birth. Having lost 3 sons in succession, my grandmother took out some of her anger on St. Joseph. “Mai piú chiameró un figlio doppo San Giuseppe,” she’s supposed to have said. (“Never again will I name a child after Saint Joseph!”) In fact, she decided not to name her next child at all. Whatever day he or she happened to be born, that day would decide the name. And so it happened, that her next child was born - on March 19 (the feast of Saint Joseph) – my Aunt Josephine. After that, my grandmother remained faithfully devoted to saint Joseph, and not a day went by without her lighting a candle in church in front of his statue. That I stand before you here today as a priest, I have little doubt, is one of the many blessings bestowed on me, thanks to those decades of countless candles illuminated by my nonna’s fervent prayers to San Giuseppe.
We know next to nothing about Saint Joseph. We know he was descended from King David. There were, of course, plenty of other people around also descended from David. Royal ancestry did not somehow single Joseph out in his society as someone special. But it was still extremely important, because being legally Joseph’s son made Jesus David’s descendant too, thus fulfilling the requirement that the Messiah must come from the royal family of David. But, as today’s gospel so poignantly makes clear, Jesus was biologically Mary’s son, not Joseph’s. Joseph may have had the greatest of ancestors, but his son was not his own.
So where exactly does that leave Joseph? He never says so much as a single word in any of the gospels. What he does is dream. True, the gospel says it was the angel of the Lord who appeared to him in a dream. But it was still a dream. The contrast with the familiar story of the angel’s appearance to Mary is striking, isn’t it? Mary even got to talk back and ask a question! Joseph just had a dream. But, when he awoke, he did as his dream directed.

Now prior to all this, Joseph had presumably been leading a relatively normal-seeming life, with normal expectations. The gospel calls him a righteous man, which means he faithfully lived according to the Old Testament Law of Moses. Presumably, he expected to live by the Law and be enlivened by it in return. Then, all of a sudden, what was expected was taken away, and all his hopes for the future seemed to fall apart. Being a righteous man meant no marriage now (at least not to Mary). His most precious relationship had been ruptured in the most unexpected way. What a jolt that must have been! But Joseph still loved Mary, and struggled with what he should do. And God was with that love, hidden in Joseph’s dreams.
Even so, how confused and perplexed must he have been by what had happened! How confused and perplexed must he have been as he struggled in the dark, trying to decide what to do, wondering what had happened to all of his plans and hopes! Joseph here stands for everyone who’s ever been confused or perplexed, living from day to day wondering what will happen next, doing the best one can in situations which are bigger and stranger than we can ever understand.
Of course, God was already present in Joseph’s situation. We might even say that God was literally “starting to show” in Mary. But God’s growing presence in Mary’s womb was not what anyone was expecting and was not necessarily so welcome. Joseph’s dream was just as unexpected – and confusing. It didn’t conform to the Law. It didn’t even conform to common sense. Just imagine Joseph waking up and explaining how he’d decided to marry Mary anyway – all because he’d had a dream! Joseph’s dream defied common sense, but it did repair his relationship with Mary – and so set the stage for the salvation of the world and the repairing of all its ruptured relationships.
We don’t celebrate Christmas in June when the sun is high and the days are bright and long. We celebrate Christmas when the days are dark and short. And we celebrate it in a chaotic and perplexing, often threatening and frightening world, where the bright light of God’s own life among us seems literally little more than a dream. The marriage of Mary and Joseph was a marriage built on a dream – but a dream which brought to birth Jesus Christ, God’s dream for the salvation of the world, the divine dream that brightens even the densest darkness.
This Christmas, let us join Joseph in his dream. And, when we awake on Christmas morning, let us also do as the angel of the Lord directs.
Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 19, 2010.

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