"O come, O come, Emmanuel!" Each Advent season we hear it sung, sometimes in such beautiful chant that we think for a minute that it might be nice to live in a monastery and sing like that all the time. There's a real danger in prayer, especially when it comes to sung prayer in this season. Beautiful music can lead us to sing petitions that we haven't thought through and might not let so easily pass our lips if we had considered the implications.
Let's assume that the just man, Joseph of Nazareth, had taken part in his community's ongoing prayer for the coming of the Messiah. He, like all those around him, had heard the prophecies, the visionary promises of flourishing deserts and a shoot that would sprout from the root of Jesse, the wonder-counselor child, virgin-born. It's easy to pray for those things when you think they're a dream.
|Fourth Sunday of Advent|
Then one day he was face to face with his pregnant betrothed. The only thing he knew for sure was that the child was not his. We don't know what he said, nor what she said. But we can assume he went off somewhere to make up his tormented mind, to choose what to do.
How does one pray in that situation? Perhaps he turned to Psalm 13: "How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? ... Give light to my eyes, lest I fall asleep in death." Lacking light, he did sleep, and in the vulnerability of slumber the word of the Lord got through to him: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid."
No real angel ever appears without announcing that there is nothing to fear. That's the first leap of faith for human beings -- it's easier to believe in angels than to believe that there's nothing to fear. But somehow Joseph's hopes and faith were strengthened by the message of the dream.
As hard as it was to believe that their situation was God's work, it was harder for him to fathom that Mary might have betrayed him and deserved to be abandoned -- or worse.
At this point, Luke and Matthew give us hints about the "he said, she said" conversation. She said, "The angel told me that this child would be called the Son of the Most High and we should call him Jesus."
He said, "I had already decided to name him Jesus." And then, looking at her with awe he added, "He will be called Emmanuel."
After that, Matthew tells us, "He took his wife into his home."
Matthew tells us about Joseph not to prove the miracle of the virgin birth, but to reveal what it means to be a just person who is receptive to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of love. Matthew introduces us to Joseph as a man whose faith was strong enough to believe that God might be doing something he himself had never anticipated. In Joseph's dilemma, we see someone seek to be faithful when justice seems at odds with mercy.
As he followed the command to take Mary home without regard for his reputation and the potential for scandal, Joseph demonstrated a rare combination of humility and strength. The way those two qualities intermingled in him combined into the virtue of fear of the Lord, a profound reverence that filled him with the conviction that God would guide them.
Joseph's choice had to be made at one particular moment, but his whole life had prepared him for it, and he would live its consequences for the rest of his days. Joseph could never have imagined the impact his decision would have on history. Isaiah would have never imagined how his prophecy would be used to calm the man called to give Emmanuel a home.
None of us ever really know how far the effects of our choices will ripple. Rather, we can only hope that we, like Joseph, can be receptive to the Spirit's inspirations. That's exactly what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans. Joseph understood it as being open to dreams; Paul calls it being holy.
In this fourth week of Advent, these readings invite us to pray for Joseph's kind of openness to God's unpredictable projects for our world. As we kindle our fourth candle, let us pray that we might open our minds to see beyond our own dreams and schemes so that Emmanuel may be ever more present in us and through us.
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a historical theologian currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]