Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
Fourth Sunday of Advent-Year A
December 18, 2016
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
When I first prayed this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, I was immediately struck by just how little we know about Joseph, the beloved spouse of Mary. He is not even mentioned in the gospels according to Mark and John and, in Matthew’s and Luke’s, the two gospels with “infancy narratives,” Joseph drops out of the story entirely, well before Jesus begins his public ministry. While all kinds of pious legends about Saint Joseph developed later in the Christian tradition, we have only these few portraits of him from the canonical gospels themselves. This week, as I prayed these propers for today’s homily, I felt that I wanted to know more about this man who, like Mary, had acquiesced so graciously to God’s plan for the world’s redemption and salvation. Who was he, I found myself asking in my prayer, and where did he find the astonishing equanimity to say “yes” to God’s improbable and decisive entrance once again into human experience?
I first became fascinated with Saint Joseph almost twenty years ago while praying before an icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. It was a very difficult time in my life, full of dark apprehensions about my own vocation, together with the declining health of a beloved friend. In the center of that icon were Mary and her infant child, and three of the icon’s four corners held miniatures of those familiar scenes of the angel announcement, the shepherds hastening to the manger, and the wise men adoring the newborn king. In the bottom-left corner, however, was a very arresting and unusual vignette not found in any of the gospels: a visibly distraught Joseph seated on a stone as Satan tempts him to despair. The icon is on the cover of today’s service leaflet. And owing to my own personal struggles with the demons of doubt and despair at that time, I didn’t need to speculate too much or too long before imagining the content of that dialogue between Joseph and the Evil One. Satan was probably telling him that Mary had been faithless; that this child, born out of wedlock, was the bastard son of her paramour; that she had made a fool of him—a laughingstock and a cuckold—in the small town of Nazareth; that the Mosaic Law permitted him to have her stoned to death for breach of their formal engagement; and that, at a minimum, he should cut his losses by promptly and very publicly sending her away. But Joseph, “a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to disgrace,” according to the Gospel, does not heed this counsel of vengeance and despair. He merely resolves, we learn, to “dismiss her quietly” instead. I remember that, at that juncture of my own spiritual journey, Joseph’s willingness to believe in the promises of God—all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—was a real inspiration to me, and I recovered my own courage to reach out in hope and expectation to God’s promises through St. Joseph’s example and intercessions.
As I have pondered Joseph’s “righteousness” over the years, I think that I have finally begun to see where he found his remarkable spiritual strength. Joseph, unlike so many of us in the modern world, was truly willing to recognize and to trust in his spiritual experience. He was willing to hear and to take seriously both the message of his dream and the angel messenger who discloses the inner meaning and the Divine purpose in the unusual events swirling around him. Perhaps this was easier for Joseph who did not live, as we do, in a skeptical era of positivism, rationalism, and uncertainty, in which the supernatural, miracles, and divine transcendence are dismissed as primitive superstitions, and where the universe is conceived as an eternal and closed system consisting only of time and space and matter. Whatever the reason, the gospels make clear that Joseph was a “righteous man,” open to the promises of God and God’s disposition to speak to us through our own experience and the normal mechanisms of human consciousness. And God has not stopped communicating with us in dreams and visions and inner voices; we no longer hear them or see them because we have stopped our ears, closed our eyes, and cut ourselves off from them by refusing to take them seriously. We moderns discount their existence and then, when they assert themselves nonetheless, we dismiss them as madness and hysteria or the products and projections of our own imagination. Inner experience and intuitive consciousness are discredited in the modern world, and even if we are inclined to listen to them, the pace and haste and noise of the world around us blunt our ability to hear them. Even our praying far too often consists only of talking at God about our desires and needs, instead of listening for God’s word to us in stillness and interior silence.
So, it turns out that we really do know a great deal about Mary’s beloved spouse after all from this one portrait of him in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Joseph shows us another way entirely of approaching God through his openness to finding God in all things, and by his willingness to listen, to discern, and to obey. Joseph’s reward for his openness to transcendence is intimate knowledge of Emmanuel, of “God is with us.” Saint Matthew’s account of the Messiah’s “annunciation” to Joseph signals that both Mary and Joseph are the Gospel’s first real contemplatives: the first to look for God in all things because they know that always “God is with us.” Their “yes” to God’s plans cannot have been the sudden and uncharacteristic assent of two first-century materialists to a divine vision. Saint Matthew’s Gospel says as much when it asserts that Joseph is already a “righteous man”; therefore his “yes,” like Mary’s, who was “full of grace,” must have been the outcome of a long habit of the heart, an attunement and straining of his spiritual senses for the Messiah Jesus, whose name means literally, “the salvation of God.” I sometimes wonder, together with Saint John Chrysostom in a homily, just how many times God heard either no response at all, or even a definitive “no,” to God’s improbable plan before God found the open, alert, and receptive hearts and open minds of Joseph and Mary!
My sisters and brothers in Christ, God is summoning you and me in this holy season of Advent to cultivate this same disposition to contemplation: to openness and alert receptivity to the presence and action of God in our prayer and in our lives. The God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ is not an unforgiving judge, a tyrant, or a cosmic policeman sitting on the edge of the universe uninvolved in the affairs of God’s “very good” Creation. In the history of God’s chosen people, and with the first advent of Jesus Christ, God has shown us that God is light and life and love. And in Jesus Christ, our impassioned God of suffering love and compassion is intimately connected to everyone and to all that is. The Trappist monk Father Louis, otherwise known as Thomas Merton, has written that “Absolute Being is also Absolute Love.” And if this is true—as I believe it is—then God is with and in and through all people and things, while remaining utterly Holy and completely Other at the same time. This is the essence of the great and holy mystery that we are about to celebrate on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Word and the Wisdom and the Power of God has decisively broken into our world in Jesus of Nazareth. “The dawn from on high has risen upon us.” And, like Joseph, we have only to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts and our minds to find him living within us: the God who is, who was, and who is yet to come! We can trust our spiritual experience because spirituality is the integrating dimension of human experience. The Holy Spirit, “groaning” and “praying within us with sighs too deep for words” has come to lead us into all truth, and that same Spirit will not fail to lead us to the Father in and through Christ Jesus. We simply need to keep reaching for the “Magis,” the “More,” in the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, by believing “in all that is, seen and unseen,” as we profess in our Creed.
In this morning’s reading from the holy prophet Isaiah, God commands Ahaz to “ask a sign of the Lord.” Ahaz refuses, not wanting to trouble God or to “put the Lord to the test.” God, in utter frustration, gives him a sign anyway through the voice of the prophet, who announces the salvation of God in the conception and birth of a young woman’s son whose name is “Immanuel: God is with us.” How often are you and I, like Ahaz, reluctant to ask God for a sign when God has already given us the greatest sign possible of God’s abiding, steadfast love for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? God, who is Love, wants to show love and mercy toward us at all times, in all people, and in every circumstance. But we must be disposed to hear and to see. We must be willing, like the young prophet Samuel, to ask boldly of the Lord, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and, then, to shut-up long enough to hear God’s reply above the din of the false self with its doomed programs for emotional happiness.
Next weekend, Christians all over the world will gather all too briefly to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, and many of us will undoubtedly sing that old chestnut “Silent Night” with pious reveries of Christmases past. We will do this as Syria’s president Assad bombs and massacres his own people; as Russian aircraft deliberately destroy schools and hospitals to bludgeon Syria’s civilian population into submission. We will sing while the so-called Islamic State continues to commit almost unimaginable war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities all across the Middle East. In Bethlehem, our Savior’s birthplace, Israelis and Palestinians will face off against each other at military checkpoints, perpetuating a conflict that has lasted too long and claimed too many lives on both sides. We will sing our carols while politicians and pundits in the United States continue to fill the airwaves and social media with their barbaric yawp, their remorseless harangues, and their shrill and unforgiving voices. In short, all will not be “calm” and all will not be “bright”—at home or in the Middle East or in much of our world for that matter. And yet, as “prisoners of hope” for the coming of our savior and redeemer Jesus Christ—in the words of our Prayer Book’s burial liturgy—“even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (BCP)
And so, amid all this noise and clamor, let us pray for the gift of a truly “silent night” when all wars will cease and God’s justice and peace will reign everywhere on this earth. Then, we just might hear the voice of the Christ Child yearning to be born within our hearts and begging to save our violent and distracted world with his words of forgiveness, reconciliation, love, and peace. And let us also pray for the grace, in our skeptical age especially, to take seriously the deepest longing of our hearts for the salvation that only God can give, and that God has already given in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For, as the great Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart has written: “God is always at home. It is we who have sometimes gone out for a walk!”