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  • Father Nicholas Lang

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

It was the night of the big Christmas pageant. The pastor faced a huge dilemma when the director came running to her in the midst of costume-robed angels and kings and exclaimed, “We have no Joseph! The boy who was to play this part is at home with the flu.” The pastor said, “Well. Let some shepherd stand near the manger with Mary. Nobody will miss Joseph. He doesn’t even have a speaking part.”

Most religious art that depicts the scene of the birth of Jesus portrays Joseph as an old man in a brown homespun robe, often half asleep or lying on a mat in dream state. Sometimes Joseph isn’t even in the nativity scene at all or is overshadowed by animals and shepherds—appearing more like part of the scenery than an active participant in this holy drama.

There is an interesting three-paneled painting that hangs in the Cloisters in New York City. It was painted by Robert Campin in the 15th Century. The triptych is an oil painting named Annunciation. Its largest panel and the principal focus is the angel’s annunciation to Mary—beautiful in its striking, bright color, in the rich drapery that Mary wears, in the beautiful room that surrounds her. To the right, in a smaller panel, is a man at work in a small, rather shabby workshop. He sits alone at his workbench with many carpenter’s tools surrounding him. An open window looks out on a typical small town. There is nothing “religious” in this scene. No angel, no candle, no holy book, just an old man hard at work in his carpenter’s shop.

Usually, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear a Gospel in which Mary is the central figure. Not today. No, today we get poor old, forgotten Joseph who gets his own angelic visit. In the Cloister’s painting, Joseph is just going about his business, working as he did everyday with not a little anxiety or worry. Soon after, he would learn the news that the angel delivered to his fiancée, Mary.

An angel will also visit Joseph, not in the bright light of day, but rather when he jumps up in a cold sweat, having learned in a dream, full of words of an ancient prophesy, that Mary’s pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit, that he is to accept this child as his own, raise the child, and name him Jesus. That’s a lot for a fellow to swallow from one angel in the middle of the night.

Our twenty-first century thinking might ask why all this would be so troubling for Joseph? Well, in first century Palestine, it was the custom for parents to arrange the marriages of their children years before they actually got hitched. Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” which meant much more than our contemporary situation of “engagement.” In betrothal, a woman was bound to a man through formal words of consent. Even though she did not live with the man, she was viewed by society as his wife. It could be years before the bride moved into the home of the groom, at which time the marriage ceremony took place and it is in this timeframe between betrothal and marriage where we find Joseph and Mary in the story. Mary was pregnant. The couple had not had any physical relationship with each other.

Joseph is faced with the dilemma of dealing with what his family and customers will perceive as Mary’s betrayal and adultery. Jewish Law demanded that the men of the village take such an unfaithful woman to the entrance of her father’s house and stone her to death. But Joseph was a “sadeek” a decent, kind man and could never have allowed young Mary, his betrothed, to be killed. He would, instead, quietly terminate the contract of this betrothal and let Mary slip away in the night to get on with her now very complicated life.

Then God intervened through a dream and, the way the story goes, everything hangs on what Joseph decides to do. If he believes the angel, Mary will have a home and a family and Jesus will have a foster daddy. If Joseph thinks the dream was just a nightmare, then Mary becomes an outcast, is stoned to death or, at the very least disowned by family and forced to eke out a meager living for herself and her illegitimate child.

We know the happy ending here. Joseph listened to the angel and believed but, as romantic as this all sounds, the reality is that his leap of faith came at great cost to him and meant that he also entered into Mary’s disgrace. There are hints in the Gospel that Jesus was always regarded by his townsfolk as illegitimate, so this family likely had a difficult life. It is no wonder that the angel told Joseph not to be afraid.

The heart and soul of this story is found in the love and trust that Mary and Joseph shared. No attorneys, no paternity tests, no guarantees. This is a Gospel about a good, faithful man who wakes up one day to find his life looking more like a train wreck, yet chose to trust and believe that God was somewhere in all of it.

Can any of us relate to this feeling? Has our life ever been invaded by circumstances beyond our control, with terms we may not have chosen? Have we been tempted to walk away from some part of our life that we did not bargain for? We make our plans and think we know how things should work out for us? Then we find ourselves overwhelmed by circumstances we never factored into the equation, maybe experiencing life very differently from the way we expected it to be.

While most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospel and he never spoke a word that was recorded there, he carried out an astonishingly important task: raising God’s Son for the first several years of his life. Jesus would have learned much of what he knew about faith from his mother and his foster father. Joseph represents the holiness of the hidden life, doing meaningful, ordinary things without fanfare.

One final Nativity scene is one you saw in this week’s E-News. It is dubbed “Let Mum Rest.” Mary is sleeping and Joseph is holding a tired Baby whose tiny arms are outstretched in a typical newborn pose.

When we’re singing “Silent Night” and get to the part about the “Mother and child,” let’s not forget about the fellow in the background, the guy who cared for them the rest of his life, silently. And without any need for notoriety or recognition. Joseph is not just an old man in a brown homespun robe sleeping on a mat. So let’s hear it for Joseph, a holy, gentle, faithful person who was willing to trust God and believe that God was in the midst of the mess of life for he set a good example for all of us.


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