19th Dec, 2004

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

It was the beloved St. Francis of Assisi who first made the crèche popular. Many of us have in mind that classic scene imprinted upon our minds from a young age which has formed our concept of the Christmas story.

I remember with fondness our family’s crèche; it was composed of a motley assortment of figurines, which didn’t match and weren’t even all the same size (they had come together in my Dad’s family when he was young during the Great Depression.) But to my sister and me, every one was a treasure and it was a great ritual gingerly unwrapping each one, exclaiming who we had just brought to light after its year of hibernation in the attic. The very special prize, of course, was the Christ child with his miniature manger; either my sister or I would cry out with glee when whichever one of us had the great honor to have been the lucky one to have the privilege of unknowingly choosing the baby Jesus out of the box of tissue paper wrapped figures. Then we would reverently place the little figures in their proper places among the fresh pine boughs.

Those of us expecting this familiar Christmas story are surprised when we hear Matthew begin abruptly: “now the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” Where is the introduction to the to the homeless couple seeking shelter as the young woman prepares to give birth? Where is the description of the stable with cattle lowing and the baby Jesus lying on a bed of hay? Where are the shepherds in the field, the angels announcing the good news and singing God’s praises? If we read further in Matthew, we do find the familiar story of the magi, following the star and carrying gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the story of Jesus’ birth is told from a very different perspective.

Luke focuses on Mary, the Blessed Mother: her encounter with the angel, her visitation of her cousin Elizabeth, her birthing and wrapping of Jesus in swaddling clothes, her reflection on the events. That is the birth story we immediately call to mind, one in which Joseph is hardly mentioned and certainly plays a very secondary role.

Poor Joseph. He is not given much attention by the Church, and is usually out of sight in the house, like an eccentric uncle when company comes.

In the western Church, Joseph was a non-identity until the time of the Crusades when he was brought west like a stolen trophy from Byzantium. He had been kept in cold storage in Orthodox calendars as a patriarch of the Old Covenant. Like with the crèche, it was the Franciscans who first championed Joseph by putting him into their calendar of saints, but it was not until the late 15th cen that the western Church allowed him a place on the calendar on March 19th as the lowest rank feast, called a “festum simplex”, and only in 1621 did Joseph obtain status as a festival of obligation, which is why Anglicans inheriting Catholic practice a century before that, had no feast day for him at all (except that observed by our Anglo-Catholic forebears) until the liturgical revisions of the late 20th century. St. Teresa of Avila promoted devotion to Joseph and the Carmelites adopted him as their patron and finally in 1870, Pius IX declared him patron of the universal church, trying to make up for centuries-old neglect of him.

Joseph had already been identified by the faithful themselves as patron of tradesfolk, workers, travelers, refugees, the persecuted, families, homes, engaged couples, the poor, the aged, the dying, and the distressed. At the height of the cold war in 1955 the pope tried to undermine socialist May Day by declaring it the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, but it never really caught on.

In one of my former parishes, the day of the children’s Christmas pageant, we got a call from the mother of the youngster cast as Joseph informing us he had come down with a bad cold and couldn’t be there. Undaunted, the director of the pageant, proclaimed that it really didn’t matter, no one would miss Joseph anyway. And the play went on and she was right, no one missed Joseph.

As with other worthy hymns, the present Episcopal Hymnal 1982, bumped the sweet carol to Joseph in the 1940 Hymnal, “Joseph dearest, Joseph mine, help me cradle this Child of thine.” Poor Joseph rarely seems to get his proper due and even his feast day gets pushed aside because it falls two days after Patrick, when people are still slightly hung-over from their celebration of an Englishman kidnapped to Ireland, pretending to be Irish.

But the story we hear today has a very different point of view; Matthew’s story centers on Joseph. It does not shunt him towards one side, nor shoo him off to the attic the way the Church seemed to do. Whereas Luke’s Gospel very much focuses on Mary, Matthew instead begins with Joseph at center stage. Like another Joseph centuries before who was a dreamer, Mary’s Joseph had a life-changing dream, too.

It is to him the angelic messenger comes in a dream; ‘Do not fear… you have the task of naming the Saviour, the Liberator, because your Mary’s baby is the arrival of Emmanuel, God-With-Us.’ Instead of quietly ending his engagement to Mary when he learned of her unplanned and untimely pregnancy, Joseph went ahead with their marriage, and agreed to become the adopted father of her child, because in his dream Joseph is told by an angel that it’s the Holy Spirit’s work (such a story and such a dream would hardly convince any surprised suitor these days.)

But perhaps Matthew and Luke are not really so different in their telling of our Lord’s birth. Each tells a story of an unplanned pregnancy and of the fear and dismay that initially accompanies the announcement of that. Each tells the story of a parent accepting this news in a humble obedience to God.

And there’s a more important dimension to the story than its function in sorting out embarrassing details. Let’s look for a minute at Joseph’s options:
He could have put Mary to shame by bringing her to court, accusing her of adultery, and demanding a divorce, because to break a betrothal required a divorce in spite of the couple not yet being married. Furthermore, the courts could have sentenced Mary to be stoned to death because of alleged adultery. Joseph could have opted for this strict patriarchal system and its placing of male prerogatives in the first place. But Joseph had a second option, and this is the one he decided upon. Even before the angelic visitor in the night, Joseph decided that he would quietly divorce Mary, (which was his male right at the time) and with no more legal fuss allow her to go have the baby in embarrassed obscurity. After weighing all the options and deciding on the second one, he decided to “sleep” on it and that’s when the angel of the Lord came with a fairly short and succinct message: “Fear not”

“Fear Not” powerful words in any age, to be sure. But to Joseph it meant he did not have to fear letting go of his machismo, his male rights and privileges, his patriarchal prerogative…and then be free of fear to take Mary to be his and ours. By forgoing his “rights” Joseph got the greatest privilege: he got to name the child, Jesus: the One of whom it was later asked, “Is this not Joseph’s Son?”

Joseph the dreamer… oh, yes he dreams more, for after his first dream, he has another in which the Lord’s angel tells him to take his family to Egypt, for Herod is set on killing the child. Once Herod is dead, Joseph dreams again and is told to bring the holy family back to Israel. Yet another dream tells him not to settle in Judah, where the ruler is Herd’s son; but to go instead to Nazareth in Galilee. In every instance Joseph hears the message, full of potential fear, and acts upon it to move his family out of harm’s way.

Matthew’s Gospel describes him as a “righteous” man. That means he is obedient to God and God is not a stranger to Joseph; so when a crisis comes to him and God sends him a message; Joseph is able to hear the message and without a “deer in the headlights” fear, then do what he needs to do.

Christmas comes to give each member of the human family a chance to reconsider their options; to think again about our hope of cradling the Saviour in our arms, to carry our resolutions to the angels of our dreams, and to listen for the voices which always speak the Messiah’s message: “Do not be afraid” to forgo your privileges: whether distinction of race, family, citizenship, wealth, class, sexual orientation, gender, age, physical looks, educations and degrees… any and more of these things; because what is being conceived in each one of us at this holy time is a Name which means “God With Us.”… with ALL of us.

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