Sunday, December 18, 2016

Joseph in the Shadows

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Matthew 1.18-25
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

My sister is two years younger than I am. And one of the things that really bothered her, particularly when we were in high school, was that, at least in eyes of teachers and school administrators, she was not Lisa Fincher. She was Michael Fincher’s sister. Her identity was bound up in her relationship to her older brother.

I can’t help but think that Joseph, betrothed to Mary, experiences the same thing. Particularly the way things are presented in the Gospels. On this, the fourth Sunday of Advent we finally come to the point of dealing with the impending birth of Jesus, and with how his parents deal with this expectation. In two of the three years of our lectionary cycle, Joseph is treated as an afterthought, deriving his identity from his relationship to Mary.

In Year B of the lectionary, the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent is the story of the Annunciation. Where the Archangel Gabriel comes to Mary to let her know that she will bear the Son of God. And there’s only one mention of Joseph. That Mary is “engaged to a man whose name is Joseph” (Lk 1.27). No other reference.

In Year C, our Gospel is the story of the Visitation. This follows immediately after the Annunciation, where Mary goes to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. And in response to Elizabeth’s realization that she is in the presence of the mother of her Lord, Mary issues her famous proclamation of the Magnificat – “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . .” But here there is no mention of Joseph at all.

It is only in Year A that we have a completely different take on the story – told from Joseph’s perspective. It is only on this fourth Sunday of Advent in the year we are now in that Joseph even begins to get the recognition that he is due. Mary doesn’t even appear in this telling of the story. She is only mentioned a couple of times.

Actually, what we heard today is Matthew’s version of the birth narrative. Not an Advent story, really, but the Christmas story told from Joseph’s perspective. It starts “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” (Mt 1.18). And then goes on to tell of Joseph receiving the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Or rather, it is obvious that he already knows from her, but he gets the full explanation from God’s messenger. A revelation that turns his world upside down. And ours. So this is not just a birth narrative, but also first and foremost an annunciation. A very different annunciation from Mary’s.

Today’s Gospel parallels the Annunciation of Mary in a number of ways. Both contain some element of shock or disbelief. Mary is perplexed at the angel’s greeting and his news. Joseph is dismayed that Mary is pregnant, supposedly by the Holy Spirit. As a result, he initially resolves to act quietly to get rid of her.

Both encounters involve angelic appearances. Mary’s is the Archangel Gabriel who appears in person. Joseph’s is an unnamed angel who appears in a dream. Poor guy doesn’t even warrant an archangel. Or a personal appearance for that matter.

Both Mary and Joseph, in their respective Annunciations, are told “Do not be afraid.” In both Annunciations, the angelic messengers go on to explain that Mary’s child was conceived from the Holy Spirit and that the child will be the Son of God. Mary is told directly. Joseph is left to infer from such statements as “You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1.21) – something only God can do – and that the child shall be called Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Both Mary and Joseph have hard decisions to make. Mary must decide if she is willing, as an unwed woman, to bear the Son of God. And in so doing, risk losing the man she loves, who just may not understand what is going on. Who may think this is all a ploy to cover-up an infidelity. And Joseph must decide if he is willing to swallow any semblance of manly pride and honor that he might have felt as the fiancé of Mary, and to accept the impossible – that her child is not his but is the Son of God. The rest of Nazareth wouldn’t know what he has done, what he has given up. But he will. And that has to sting a little.

And ultimately, both respond “yes.” Mary assents, saying “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (Lk 1.38). And Joseph assents in his actions. He agrees to take Mary as his wife, despite the appearances. We generally focus on the courage of Mary to say “yes” to God. But Joseph is also courageous. Despite the uncertainty, the fear, the unknown, Joseph, like Mary, ultimately says “yes” to God. He trusts God, even in uncomfortable circumstances.

Even in the annunciations of Mary and Joseph, Joseph seems to be placed in a secondary position. He doesn’t rate an archangel visiting in person. He doesn’t rate direct explanations. Mary has a choice, whereas he is presented with what is more or less a fait accompli. He is destined to provide a supporting role to Mary.

But there actually is something of great importance that Joseph brings to the overall story of Jesus’ birth. In the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. His role is not just to be the stand-in husband to protect Mary’s honor. His role is not just in the actions surrounding the birth of Jesus. In getting Mary to Bethlehem safely. In protecting her and caring for her during the birth itself. His role is larger still. His role is key to the larger arc of salvation history, in helping to fulfill one of the provisions of prophecy. Even if only on a technicality. According to ancient prophecy, the Messiah would be of the house of David. Descended from the greatest king in the history of Israel. But Mary was not of that lineage. Even if she was, the ancestral lineage was traced through the males. So how to insure that the prophecy would be fulfilled? By serving as the earthly father of the Messiah, by “adopting” Jesus, Joseph would bring him into his own family. A lineage that traced itself directly back to King David himself. Problem solved. Prophecy fulfilled.

We don’t really know what else Joseph brings to the story. He drops out of the pages of scripture pretty quickly after the birth of Jesus. There are brief appearances of Joseph in the flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution, and then again in the return of the Holy Family to Nazareth following Herod’s death. And there is the one last scene when the family takes their annual trip to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is twelve years old at the time and stays behind in the Temple after the family begins their trip home. But here, Joseph is not named. Neither is Mary. There are merely a couple of references to “his parents.” And after that, we hear no more from Joseph. Of course, we can infer that Joseph performed his duties as father of Jesus. Raising him. Providing for him. Teaching him his own trade as a carpenter. Providing him with a religious education. Teaching him the values of his people. Helping to shape the man Jesus would become.

Based on our Gospel for today, we see a picture of Joseph as a model of righteousness, compassion, maturity, and discernment. In this, he is a model for all of us. Of the virtues that we are called to develop and exhibit in our own relationship with Jesus. And all of this was done more or less behind the scenes. Joseph was not out in the spotlight, but was in the shadows, gently and quietly living into the ministry God had invited him into. To play an important role that was focused not on himself, but on Jesus. A role that he carried out magnificently. Because in playing his role, doing his part, Jesus was ultimately prepared to step out into the world to fulfill the role he was destined for.

One of my most prized possessions is a cross-stitch my mother made for me years ago. (Here it is.) It depicts Mary holding the baby Jesus. The two of them are displayed in vivid color. And behind them, in more subdued, faded colors, is Joseph. This graphically portrays the fact that Joseph’s ministry was not to be in the limelight, but to work in the shadows. But the fact that he is there demonstrates how important his role truly is.

This picture is meaningful for me, not only because Mom made it, but because it is an icon of our own lives in Christ. That it is not about us. That as Christians, our lives are to magnify Christ, not overshadow him. Our lives, our ministries, are to be lived in such a way that they allow Christ, active in our own lives, to show forth. That we are called to humbly live not for ourselves, but for Christ.

Joseph’s decision to say “yes” to God, and all his subsequent actions, became clearer when he learned his unique role in God’s divine plan for the salvation of humanity. Similarly, each of us also has a unique role in advancing God’s kingdom and in proclaiming God’s love to the world. As we approach the fulfillment of God’s plan through the coming of a child, are we willing to say “yes” to living in a way that that magnifies not our own lives, but Jesus? To allow our lives to be overshadowed by his? To show forth in our own lives his love for all the world to see?

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