Saturday, December 29, 2012

St. Joseph the Betrothed: Homily for the Sunday after Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel According to St. Matthew 2:13-23
           There is something beautiful in the combination of the different types of people described in the gospel accounts of our Lord’s birth.  Persian astrologers known as the magi, lowly shepherds, a young virgin, and an old man named Joseph all play their roles.  We have spoken of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos many times in the weeks leading to Christmas, as we must, for she is the first to receive Christ, the one through whom the Son of God is born as a human being.  All generations call her blessed and we seek to follow her example of purity, obedience, and humility.
            But today we especially commemorate Joseph the Betrothed, an unlikely and originally unwilling hero of the Christmas story.   We know from the Protoevangelium of James, an early Christian writing, that when it was time for Mary to move out of the Temple where she had grown up, an angel directed the high priest to assemble all the widowers for one to be chosen by a miraculous sign as the guardian, the protector of Mary, the holy virgin.  Joseph was the one chosen; but when he was told of this duty, he refused, saying:  “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel.”  Yes, there is something a bit shocking about an old man who is betrothed to a young girl.  But the high priest reminded him of the importance of fearing and obeying God.  So Joseph did as he was told and took responsibility for Mary as her betrothed. 
            We can only imagine Joseph’s horror at discovering that Mary was pregnant.  We read in the Protoevangelium that “he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly, saying: With what face shall I look upon the Lord my God? And what prayer shall I make about this maiden? Because I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her.”  But when he heard the word of the Lord through an angel that this child was of the Holy Spirit and that Mary had remained a virgin, he believed and obeyed.   
            Of course, others noted the pregnancy of the young virgin entrusted to the much older Joseph. So they were then brought before a religious court and required to drink the water of ordeal, which would make them sick if they were guilty of sin.  You can easily imagine what their accusers thought that they had done.  They both were unharmed, however, and were set free. 
            Joseph’s life had certainly been complicated by taking Mary as his betrothed.  But then things got even worse.  He had to take the pregnant Mary with him to Bethlehem, where she gave birth in a cave used as a barn for farm animals. And once the baby was born, Joseph found himself at the center of an international crisis with both wise men from Persia and King Herod looking for the child.  Then, the old man had to lead his family by night to Egypt, where they hid out until it was safe to return to Israel, to the town of Nazareth in Galilee.
            Joseph must have wondered many times how he got himself into all this unwelcomed excitement and why God had chosen him for such an unusual responsibility.  But he still obeyed and risked his life in protecting the young Jesus and His virgin Mother. Joseph put aside his own wishes and preferences and did what needed to be done, and thus played a crucial role in the unfolding of our salvation. 
            During this season of Christmas, I hope that we will all take Joseph the Betrothed as a model for how to live.  Perhaps in some ways we can all identify with him.  He had lived a life in the world, having been married with children, and then widowed.  His story shows us that we don’t have to be young or free from worldly cares in order to serve God; neither do we have to be especially enthusiastic volunteers.   Instead, we simply have to obey His calling.  We may not always like it and may refuse at first, as did Joseph and as did figures like Moses in the Old Testament.   But God can be patient and persistent and use us to His glory nonetheless.
            The miracle of Christmas required human cooperation in so many ways.  No one forced Mary to agree to become the Theotokos.  The wise men could have decided that the trip to Palestine was just too far.  Joseph could have abandoned the woman and the child entrusted to his care.  But he didn’t, despite the awkwardness, the danger, and the inconvenience.  On several occasions, he probably swallowed hard, steadied his nerves, kept his mouth shut, and prayed for God to help him one day at a time as he pressed forward. 
            As we celebrate the season of Christmas this year, let us remember that the Son of God took flesh in a world where people make choices.  It’s a world where we all have our priorities, our goals, our vision of what would be nice in life.  The problem is that God’s calling doesn’t always fit with our preferences.   We, like Joseph, are called to obey nonetheless, to respond in freedom, and to play our role in the unfolding of God’s salvation in the world.
            I know that it may seem a bit much to compare our calling with that of Joseph.  It’s hard to compete with being the adopted father of Jesus Christ.  The good news is that it’s not a contest; we don’t have to compete.  Instead, we just have to remember that the Lord was born for us too, that we also are brought into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity through Him.  He invites and calls us all to share in His life, to raise us the joy and blessedness of the kingdom even as we live and breathe.  But in order for this glorious transformation to occur, we must embrace Him, we must respond to Him, we must hear and obey His calling.
            We will do so not in some storybook world of religious platitudes, but in one as harsh and brutal as the one our Savior was born into as a helpless baby.  Unfortunately, there are still those who kill the innocent, even defenseless children, and even more who abuse and neglect them. There are situations of war, persecution, abuse, and poverty that lead families to take refuge in foreign countries, such as our own.    We never have to look far to find sick, lonely, and miserable people who are as vulnerable and needy as the newly born Lord and His mother.  No doubt, we can all play the role of Joseph to them in one way or another by giving generously of our time, attention, and other resources to become their friends, advocates, and protectors.         
            The good news of this season is that, because of Christ’s birth, all human beings are called to the life of heaven.  The particulars of that calling vary for each of us.  And it’s not always as clear as the brilliant star that the wise men followed.  And sometimes even when it becomes clear, we refuse like Joseph did at first.  But one thing is for sure:  we have to listen in order to hear God’s unique calling to us.  And that means prayer, in stillness and quiet, on a daily basis in which our hearts and souls are opened to Him.  It also means cultivating the obedient faith that we see in Joseph.  Like him, we may be called to new, unexpected responsibilities; to sacrifice our standing in the eyes of others; and even to risk life as we know it.
            So like Joseph the Betrothed, let us serve Christ this Christmas season with the fear of God and faith and love.   Let us put aside our excuses and do what has to be done in order for us to participate more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.   Let us be especially attentive to those who are weak, vulnerable, and displaced, for that is how the Lord came to us.  Let us celebrate this glorious feast of our salvation by loving and serving Him in every way we can.  

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