A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 4 in Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; Romans 1:1-7; and St. Matthew 1:18-25. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
In these few verses, Matthew opens up for us the complexity of Joseph as a human being. He hints at, and we can imagine, Joseph’s distress, his sense of betrayal, his disappointment, and all the other emotions he must have experienced. We can imagine also the fear and hurt that Mary probably would have felt as she and her betrothed sorted out the complications caused by the divine intrusion into their relationship.
Unlike Luke’s pastorally pleasing story of the manger, the angels, and the shepherds, Matthew gives us a direct and simple story of Mary and Joseph as human beings, not characters frozen in a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people, people like us dealing with a serious complication in their relationship. Thus, we can see ourselves to be people like them, people who live complex lives, who have all sorts of experiences, some of them quite detrimental, and yet whom God invites nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.
Poets have explored the complex humanity of Joseph and his possible reactions to the news given by the angel in his dream. For example, in Joseph’s Suspicion, Rainer Maria Rilke envisions Joseph arguing with the angel, forcefully refusing to believe even that Mary is pregnant, raising his fist to the angel defending Mary’s honor:
The angel spoke and patiently tried to
convince the man, who met him with clenched fists:
Can you not see that in every way
she is as cool as God’s first morning mist?
And yet the man looked at him glowering with
suspicion, murmuring: what has brought about her change?
But then the angel cried in anger: Carpenter!
Do you not yet perceive the hand of God’s own doing?
Because you handle wood and know your trade,
do you in arrogance call Him to task
who from the self-same wood you handle now
can make green leaves appear and swelling buds?
He understand. And as he raised his eyes;
now full of fear, to meet the angel’s face,
he was gone. Slowly Joseph removed his cap.
Then he began to sing his song of praise.
In his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden envisions Joseph asking for “important and elegant proof” that Mary’s word is true; the angel refuses and, instead, demands that Joseph simply have faith in what Auden clearly considers a scientific impossibility.
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .
No, you must.
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.
The Narrator of the oratorio then compares Joseph’s dilemma to that of Adam believing Eve and eating the apple, and traces the spiritual relationship of men and women through the ages, ending with this advice to Joseph:
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.
The Jesuit poet John Lynch in his narrative poem A Woman Wrapped in Silence, writes of what we do not know, capturing through our ignorance what Joseph and Mary might really have been to each other in their mutual consternation:
What source we have of knowledge of her days
Is sparing, and has left us many days
Still veiled, and if there is enough to find
What Joseph found, and a few dear treasured words,
We must have more to lead us where our love
Would seek to go. And there is one sweet place
That distant watching eyes could fondly wish
To see and ponder on. Did Joseph come,
And with his sobs seek pardon for his fears?
And did he see how, suddenly, his love
Was greater than he knew and could be carried
Now along new pathways with his prayers?
God’s kingdom now was four, and claimed again
Another life to be with Zachary,
To listen with Elizabeth, and then
With her to serve. O, glad, he was for strength,
And glad for honor, and for nmae, and glad
His hand was skilled enough to fashion walls
And build the smallness of a crib that now
Would cradle more than all the world could hold.
Dreams of all his fathers fell on him
In one bright dream, and all bright hopes were clear.
We may not know for sure, and yet, and yet,
May we not see how quietly he came
And spoke no word. And Mary saw him come,
Finding a new thing shining in his eyes.
And when quick tears of gladness and relief
Were done, she saw him kneel, lift up his hands,
Two hands that held invisibly, his life.
She may have reached her own pale fingers out
And found them . . . callused, generous, and strong.
Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship, Perkins School of Theology, in her commentary on this gospel entitled The Fear of Betrayal offers not a poem, but a vignette offering another possible conversation between Joseph and the angel:
On this night, as much as on Christmas Eve, an angel hovered near, whispering a message from God into Joseph’s sleeping ear. The angel interrupted the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement that played in the theater of Joseph’s dreams. The angel replaced them with a manger scene and visions of a boy growing and becoming strong.
“Here,” whispered the angel, “is the key that unlocks your dilemma. Believe her unbelievable story. Marry her, and become the father of God’s child. He will need a father to be accepted by others as he grows to manhood. He will need, not just any father, but a father like you, capable of nurturing him, and giving him a name. ‘Immanuel — God with us.’
“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.
“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.
“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.
“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”
In this way, I imagine the father of our Lord was born that night.
These writers through their imaginative treatments show us what Matthew hints at in his simple story: that Joseph was a complex man, a human being like any of us, entrusted by God with the ominous responsibility of fostering God’s own son. We can imagine that his response to that invitation might have been as fearful and as conflicted as any of ours would have been and yet, although Joseph soon disappears from the gospel narratives, we can be assured that he accomplished that ministry with skill and grace. From that we can take the comfort that when God invites us to accomplish his purposes, as God surely does, we too will be able to do so with skill and grace.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.