Advent 4A 13 Deerfield
Many of us have a mental image of how we think Christmas is “supposed to be.” The image includes a composite of memories of parts of happy Christmases past when the family was all together and getting along, when we got all the presents we wanted and none that we didn’t, when the tree was just right, and at the Christmas dinner we had as much as we wanted of just what we wanted to eat, and so on. No Christmas has ever been like it, including this Christmas.
Every Chrismas is imperfect. Some are more imperfect than others. For many of Christmas can be a hard time compared to our image of how Christmas is “supposed to be” and even compared to our real memories of past Christmases. Some of the people with whom we shared Christmas dinner in the past are now sharing in God’s heavenly banquet. Children grow up and take on spouses whose families have their own expectations of Christmas. My daughter remembers 1987. She was 10; my mother lived here in the square doughnut. I was rector in Shelby with a 10:00 Christmas morning service, lunch and drive up the mountain. Presents were opened in the early afternoon. My mother died before the next Christmas and the following year we moved to Durham.
But part of the grace of Christmas is Emmanuel, God is with us. No matter what, Jesus is with us by his Holy Spirit. That first Christmas was not easy for Joseph. “before they lived together,” Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
The traditional teaching is that Joseph was an older man and Mary his young second wife. Joseph does not appear in Scripture after their visit to the temple when Jesus was about 12. The brothers and sisters of Jesus come to reason with him early in his ministry in the way older siblings counsel younger ones about the ways of the real world. The gospel says Joseph “but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.” Did they have so after? The liturgies of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church speak of Mary “ever virgin.” That tradition dates from about 115 years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
We can appreciate Joseph’s disappointment regardless of speculation about his age and situation. We are told, “her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” We are not told that he went to ask Mary the truth. He should have. I want to believe that “being a righteous man” he would have enough trust and love to ask Mary, “What happened?” and to hear from her about the angel Gabriel. But whether the angel who appeared to him in a dream was offering new information or simply spiritual confirmation, Joseph was obedient to the will of God and took Mary as his wife.
Nazareth was a small town, 4 miles from Sepphoris, the principal Roman military and civilian center in Galilee. People talked and probably laughed behind their hands. But Joseph was obedient to God’s call as Mary had been obedient to God’s call. And God blessed their obedience.
In an imperfect world, all we can do is to seek to do the will of God as that will is revealed to us. The God who made us loves us. He wants what is best for us, and what is best for us is to be obedient to his will. Our task then is to seek to discern, and then to do, God’s will.
One good way to discern God’s will is to lay aside our own notions of how things “ought to be.” Joseph didn’t much want to have his young fiance’ talked about. His first thought was to protect his own name and reputation. He was a “righteous man and unwilling to expose her” and himself “to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” We can appreciate that. If we don’t talk about unpleasant things eventually other people won’t either. But we know God is a God of truth. His ways are not our ways, and his ways are good and true.
God speaks. We need to listen. God speaks through his word written in Scripture; God speaks through Christ’s body the church; God speaks through people who love us; and God speaks in our quiet times. He spoke by the angel to Mary; he spoke to Joseph through an angel in a dream. I wonder sometimes if God speaks through angels in dreams to those of us who are not quiet unless we are asleep.
An old story tells how some 70 years ago Christian prisoners of war made a chapel in a corner of a cell. On the wall they hung a rough carved crucifix. At Christmas they set on a table below the crucifix a nativity scene made from bits and pieces of wood and cloth. One day while a prisoner was kneeling in prayer the guard walked in. He pointed at the figure of the man on the cross and asked, “Who?” “Jesus,” the prisoner replied. Then the guard pointed at the figure of the baby in the manger and asked, “Who?” “Jesus,” the prisoner replied. The guard put his hands together in respect, bowed, and said, “So sorry.” And the prisoner replied, “No, not sorry, but so glad.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."