Saturday, December 29, 2007

The First Sunday after Christmas Day

The Holy Gospel is written in the 1st Chapter of Saint Matthew, beginning at the 18th Verse. The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

Our Gospel today from Saint Matthew completes the telling of the story of our Lord’s birth that was begun on Christmas Eve. Each of the stories that were told on Christmas Day emphasizes a different aspect of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Saint Luke tells us the story of the Nativity from the perspective of the world. The Blessed Virgin Mary gives birth in the stable and the Angels appear to shepherds, telling them to not be afraid and singing celestial melodies of “Glory to God in the Highest.” The Gospel of Saint John recounts a different story of the Incarnation, identifying Jesus as the Word and describing how the Word has existed with God from the very beginning and is indeed God. This passage culminates in the powerful sentence, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The Gospel of Saint John is the story of the cosmic battle between light and darkness, between good and evil, between God and the Devil. But the Gospel of Saint Matthew tells a different story, the story of a simple carpenter, Saint Joseph. Saint Joseph was a man much like us and in this short passage in which Saint Matthew describes the birth of Christ, the Evangelist tells us several facts about Saint Joseph that serve as models for us in our Christian life.

The first fact that the Gospel tells us is that Saint Joseph was a just man. Now justice is something that has a specific meaning for the Jew. A “just” man is a man who is faithful and absolutely obedient to the Law. As would have been the custom, Joseph would have been a man who had been circumcised according to the Law of Moses, educated in the Jewish scriptures, and faithful to his duty in the synagogue. A carpenter, Saint Joseph would have spent time as an apprentice before becoming a master of his trade and taking on apprentices himself. As an employer, a just man would have treated his apprentices with the same respect, firmness and fairness that a father would show to his sons. In short, to be a just man is to be a man who lives his life in conformity with the Law of God and that fairly describes Saint Joseph.

The second characteristic that the Bible tells us about Saint Joseph is that he was a merciful man. When Joseph learned that his fiancĂ©e Mary was pregnant, he was aware that it was his right under the Law to publicly humiliate her. In fact, the Law would have even allowed him to have her stoned to death. Mary’s pregnancy would have been shameful to Joseph because it would have meant that she had been unfaithful to him even before their marriage or that they had been unfaithful to the Law and customs of their faith. Either way would have been terribly shameful both for Joseph and for Mary. But what does the Bible tell us about Joseph? When faced with this horrible shame, he decides to divorce Mary quietly. He doesn’t wish to create a public spectacle in order to save his own reputation. Nor does he desire to have her punished under the Law as was his right. Rather, Saint Joseph understands the failings of human nature and he decides to show mercy and allow Mary a dignified way out of a difficult situation, a quiet divorce that would reduce her shame. Only a man who understood the mercy and forgiveness of God could have done such a thing and that fairly describes Saint Joseph.

The Gospel then goes on to tell us of a third characteristic of Saint Joseph: He was absolutely and unequivocally faithful to the commands of God. Lying his bed, faced with disappointment that he would not take Mary for his wife, he drifts into sleep. And in that sleep, an Angel appears to him in a dream. The Angel tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she is carrying is of the Holy Ghost. And she will bring forth a son, and you will call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And what does Joseph do? Does he question his senses? Does he say, as would only have been human, “I cannot allow myself to be subject to the humiliation and ridicule that would come from taking this woman as my wife”? Does he say, “What kind of foolishness is this? This dream is not from God, it is simply my own mind playing tricks on me,” much in the same way that Scrooge though Marley's visitation was the result of undigested meat. No, Joseph knows the Scriptures and he knows that God often speaks in dreams. And he understands what he must do: He must take this woman, Mary, to be his wife. He must raise this child, Jesus, as his own, teaching him the lessons that only a Father can teach; nurturing this child in the Law that has sustained him; and protecting Jesus from all that would harm him. Only a man who was absolutely faithful to God could place the command of an Angel in a dream before his own needs and reputation and that fairly describes Saint Joseph.

As we gather here on this First Sunday after Christmas and we hear the story of Saint Joseph, we realize that Saint Joseph is a model for us and a challenge to us at the same time. Joseph was a just man who lived in obedience to God’s Law. Does a commitment to the Law of God fairly describe us? Saint Joseph was a merciful man who placed his concern for others before his own reputation. Does a commitment to the mercy of God fairly describe us? Joseph was absolutely faithful without reservation to what God asked him to do. Does that type of fidelity to God fairly describe us? Every year the Christmas season presents us with the story of our Lord’s Nativity from a variety of perspectives, but only on this, the First Sunday after Christmas Day, do we encounter a man, much like us, who is called by God and asked to do a remarkable thing. On this day, we are given the example of Saint Joseph, a man of justice, mercy, and fidelity. Let us ask Saint Joseph to intercede for us with the Father, so that the values which characterized his life may live in us as well both in this Christmas season and for evermore.

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