23rd Dec, 2007

Advent IV

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

A few years ago I shared with you my bemusement over the periodic thefts of baby Jesus figures from outdoor manger scenes across the country… Why would someone steal the Bambino and what would they do with it? I puzzled…

Well, the mystery has been solved, at least in one Southern California city – Dateline: December 19, 2007. A thief left notes this week in place of baby Jesus statues swiped from Nativity scenes in the yards of at least 12 Santa Clarita residences. In the statues place, the thieves left a note: ‘Do not worry for baby Jesus is not gone, he is just not born, yet. You can find your dear Jesus at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church on his birthday.’ Sure enough, at the foot of the outdoor statue of the Virgin Mary, ‘We found 12 different sizes and types of baby Jesuses,’ said Msgr. Paul Montoya. Church officials called the sheriff’s department, which has begun an investigation. One of the victimized baby Jesus owners, Vicki Combs, was relieved to have found her little Jesus; ‘I think I’ll nail him down,’ she said. (I shall resist the temptation to make any further editorial comments.)

Here we are, the fourth Sunday of Advent: the last candle is lit. Ready or not, Christmas is upon us. Ready or not, we will be back here tomorrow night or Tuesday morning to meet our Lord as He comes to us as a child… and to pray that we may continue to meet Him, as He comes to us in so many ways, at so many times…

We no doubt have plans for Christmas and for our families and for our lives. These plans should certainly include God As Advent ends, we need to realize also that God has plans for us. We need to remember that, very often, it has been those times in our lives when things did not go as we had planned that God was most present, and the most real. Many people’s plans are not going the way that they had anticipated these days: they are unable to make their mortgage payments and are losing their homes; the Writers’ Guild strike has had a pervasive impact on our local economy; credit card debt is at an all-time high, as are gasoline and fuel prices…

Yet CNN reported on Dec. 16th that holiday retail spending surpassed $22 billion already – a 22% increase over the same time last year! The “cathedrals” of our age are the shopping malls, teaming with people worshipping at the altar of the cash register while the houses of God struggle to fill their pews and even level-fund their meager parish budgets. I’m far from a “Grinch” this time of year, but where are the priorities, for God’s sake? For God’s sake… yes, for God’s sake a young man named Joseph heeded a life-changing dream… and today, this fourth Sunday of Advent, while the malls are bustling and the cash registers are ringing, we hear the story…

But St. Matthew’s story is different from the one most of us like best in St. Luke’s Gospel. Luke focuses on the Blessed Mother Mary: her encounter with the angel Gabriel, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth; her holy birthing and wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes; and her reflection on the events. That is the story we immediately call to mind, one in which Joseph is hardly mentioned and certainly plays a very secondary role. Poor Joseph: he’s 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 devotion to him was discovered in the East and he was brought back like a stolen trophy from Byzantium. As with the crèche it was the Franciscans who first championed Joseph’s cause, but it took him until 1621 to be taken off the back burner and promoted to a first-class feast day on March 19th, but even then being overshadowed by Patrick whose day comes just two days before. But Joseph stays faithful and solid, patron of working people, the poor, the aged, the distressed and dying and of families and homes.

Despite these noble causes over which St. Joseph has patronage, he still remains a footnote to the greatest story ever told in most people’s minds. 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 could not 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.

But the story we hear today is a very different one; St. Matthew’s story actually centers on Joseph. It does not maneuver him to one side as an extra to the story: he actually takes center stage. Like another Joseph in the Bible centuries before, Mary’s Joseph had life-changing dreams, too. It is to him the angelic messenger comes in a dream: “Do not fear… you have the sacred task of naming the Savior, 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 heard of her unplanned and untimely pregnancy, Joseph went ahead with their marriage and agreed to become the adoptive 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!) It’s the angel’s words which undoubtedly given Joseph confidence and strength: “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 to be free of fear to take Mary to be his … and ours. By relinquishing 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, too… For after his first dream, he has another in which the Lord’s angel tells him to take his family to Egypt, for the wicked king 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. And yet in another dream he is told not to settle in Judah, where Herod’s son rules; but to go instead to Nazareth in Galilee. In every instance Joseph heeds the message; in every instance full of potential fear, he acts on it to move his family out of harm’s way. St. Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. That means he is obedient to God and God is no stranger to Joseph; so when a crisis looms and God sends a message, Joseph is able to hear it and then act.

Christmas comes to give each one of us a chance to reconsider our options: To think again about our hope of cradling the Savior 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 let go of all your privileges: whether distinctions of race, citizenship, wealth, class, gender, age, education; any and all 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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