Homily for the Conclusion of the Bicentennial Celebration of Servant of God Isaac Hecker's Birth, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019.
Today is the 131st anniversary of the death of Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the Founder of the Paulist Fathers, who died at the Paulist house in New York City on December 22, 1888. Today, too, we conclude our celebration of the Bicentennial Year of Hecker’s birth on December 18, 1819. We began, a year ago, by reading from one of Hecker’s most famous sermons, preached at the Paulist Church in New York on Saint Joseph’s Day in 1863. On that occasion Hecker described Saint Joseph “as an excellent and unsurpassed model” of the type of Christian perfection called for by our modern age.
Of course, we actually know very little about Saint Joseph’s life. In his preaching and writing, however, Hecker self-consciously sought and promoted models of holiness that he believed resonated with the new context created by what he saw happening in the modern world. Consistent with his understanding of the role of free citizens in modern society, he sought to highlight the kind of contemporary holiness he believed most relevant to today’s world.
Basically, Hecker held up Saint Joseph as a model of someone who lived an ordinary life in the world, working at his trade, taking part in the ordinary activities of his community, raising a family. If he stood out at all in his society, it would have been because he was, what the Gospel calls, a righteous man – a good thing to be in any age.
One of the few other things today's Gospel tells us about Joseph is that he was descended from King David. Plenty of people were descended from David. So Joseph’s royal ancestry did not somehow single him out as someone special in his society. But being legally Joseph’s son made Jesus David’s descendant also, thus fulfilling the requirement that the Messiah must be from the house of David. On the other hand, as the Gospel also makes so poignantly clear, while Jesus was legally Joseph’s son, he was physically only Mary’s. Joseph may have had the greatest of ancestors, but his son was not his own.
We do not know what Joseph’s original hopes and plans might have been for himself and the family he hoped to have – or, for that matter, what Mary’s original hopes and expectations might have been. Presumably they would have both been somewhere within what would have been considered conventional in their society – until, all of a sudden, as the Gospel tells us, Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit, and everything changed, and not just for Joseph and Mary, but for all of us!
But imagine what a jolt that must have been! And how confused and perplexed Joseph must have been by what had happened! Confused and perplexed, groping in the dark, wondering what had happened to all his hopes and plans, trying to decide what to do, Joseph in a sense stands for everyone who has ever been confused and perplexed by life, living from day to day wondering what will happen next, trying to do the best one can in situations that seem so much bigger than we can ever understand.
If the complications to Joseph’s marriage plans had come unexpectedly, Joseph’s dream was just as unexpected – and, at least initially, quite as confusing. It didn’t conform to the Law. It didn’t even conform to common sense. Waking up and marrying Mary anyway, just because he’d had a dream, contradicted common sense and all conventional expectations.
In repairing his threatened relationship with Mary, however, Joseph’s dream set the stage for the salvation of the world and the repairing of all its ruptured and ruined relationships.
In the 19th century, Isaac Hecker has his own idea, his own “dream,” so to speak, about how to repair American society’s ruptured and ruined relationships.
As a young man in the Jacksonian era, Hecker himself had been interested in politics, and in fact his older brother John remained active in New York Democratic party politics all his life.
And, like the 19th-century’s most famous observer and analyst of American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections between individuals, and the resulting dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their experience of a free society. A convert himself, Hecker saw in Catholicism an answer to the questions of people’s souls and the aspirations of human nature - and so a solution to society’s divisions. Thus, at his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, where (as the Pope put it) “parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.” [“From a letter to the American Fathers, dated Rome, December 22, 1857,” The Paulist Vocation, p. 46.]
We could certainly still use some of Hecker’s Catholic oil on our troubled 21st- century waters!
There is a reason, after all, why we don’t celebrate Christmas in June, when the sun is high and the days are long and bright. We celebrate Christmas in December when the days are dark and short. We celebrate it, as Joseph did, in a confusing and perplexing, often threatening and frightening world, where the bright light of Emmanuel, the God who is with us, seems itself sometimes little more than a dream. The marriage of Mary and Joseph was a marriage built on a dream – a dream which brought to birth Jesus, who is God’s great dream for the salvation of the world, the divine dream that enlightens even the densest darkness.
And so, this Christmas, let us (like Hecker) join Joseph in his dream - so that we too may be prepared to do as the angel of the Lord directs us.