Friday, December 21, 2007

SUNDAY BEFORE THE NATIVITY (Mt 1.1-25): Joseph Listens

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, "God with us." Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS (Matthew 1:1-25).

Down in the bottom left corner of the Nativity icon, his face turned from Christ and the Theotokos and toward an old man, we see St Joseph. The old man that Joseph is listening to is Satan. The devil is tempting him, trying to convince Joseph that Mary has been unfaithful and that the Child to whom she has just given birth is another man's son.

And Joseph listens.

Satan taunts him. And Joseph entertains the possibility that the word spoken to him by "an angel Lord" is a lie and that the Child which Mary "conceived" is not "of the Holy Spirit" but another man.

And Joseph listens.

According to the Church's liturgical tradition Joseph is called the Betrothed. He is given this title to remind us that though his marriage to the Virgin is a real marriage, it is unconsummated. As a matter of law, Joseph is Mary's husband and the Child's father. But because the marriage is unconsummated, Joseph knows that he is not the Child's biological father; he did not conceive Jesus with Mary. And it is, ironically, the very obedience of the Betrothed to God's command that Satan uses to tempt him. Past faithfulness is twisted to tempt Joseph to disobey God and turn away, if only momentarily, from Jesus and Mary.

And Joseph listens.

And in so doing, Joseph risks being deceived by an "angel of light," one of the "false apostles, deceitful workers," who transform "themselves into apostles of Christ" (see 2 Cor 11:12-15). I remind my own spiritual children that it is the work of Satan to corrupt us from within. He tells us the truth untruthfully, he twists strength into weak, and poisons virtue so it becomes vice. The father of lies is himself the arch-heretic, the one who follows his own will and tempts us to do likewise tricking us into doing his will and not God's.

And Joseph listens.

He struggles with his own doubts, his own suspicions. That master psychologist of the spiritual life, St John Chrysostom, looks with great compassion on the struggling Joseph of Christmas morning.

What an explosive thing jealous is, . . . [We] know of many who have chosen to give up their lives rather than fall under the suspicion of jealousy. But in [Joseph's] case it was not a matter of simple suspicion, as the burden of Mary's own womb entirely convicted her. Nevertheless, Joseph was so free from the passion of jealousy as to be unwilling to cause distress to the Virgin, even in the slightest way. To keep Mary in his house appeared to be a transgression of the law, but to expose and bring her to trail would cause him to deliver her to die. He would do nothing of the sort. So Joseph determined to conduct himself now by a higher rule than the law. For now . . . grace had appeared . . . like the sun, not yet risen. (Homily on the Gospel of Matthew IV)

And Joseph listens.

Taking Chrysostom as my guide in the matter, I cannot judge Joseph harshly, or even at all. What choice did he have but to listen to the conflict messages of sin and grace?

Joseph lived at the very end of Satan's reign. Yes, as Chrysostom reminds us, even before His birth, "when about to rise from the womb" Christ casts "light upon the world." But for Joseph at the Cave on that first Christmas, the world is still shrouded in darkness. To be sure it is the fleeting darkness of dawn and no longer the deep darkness of night. But still Joseph lives in darkness.

In this way, Joseph is more a saint of the Old Testament then New. Joseph is like the Prophet Moses who stood in the last moments of his own life and looked at the Promise Land he was never to enter. But Joseph is not Moses. However the saints of Old, he is still a saint of the Church and, when the righteous arise at Pascha, Joseph will rise with them as a faithful follower of Christ. But on Christmas morning, this remains in Joseph's personal future.

And Joseph listens.

In his essay, "Christmas," G. K. Chesterton writes:

It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before.

Of all the saints of the New Testament, even more than John the Baptist, it is Joseph who has the task of being that "quite clear black line" to which Chesterton refers.

And Joseph listens.

Though on that first Christmas morning Satan's rule is passing away, it has not quite ended. Even more than the Baptist, Joseph belongs more to Wednesday than Thursday, to Advent more than Christmas, to the Promise more than its Fulfillment; he is more a slave to sin and death than a slave righteousness (see Rom 6:17-18). And yet for all that Joseph is less in some ways then the other saints of the New Testament, he is greater in others because he believed in Christ before belief was really possible.

While Mary had the Gabriel's word, and the growing Christ Child, and John the revelation in the womb, and the disciples and apostles the words of Jesus' sermons and his miracles, Joseph had only the passing shadows of the old law that bore witness to the glory that was to come (see Col 2: 17).

And Joseph listens.

Mindful of his adopted father's struggle not simply at His birth, but throughout his life, Jesus reminds His disciples:

Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect (Mt 24:23-24).

And, at this moment, at the birth of the Son Who honors him by calling him father, finally Joseph hears in his heart the Voice of his Infant Son.

Though he will be tempted throughout his life, Joseph will also throughout his life imitate his adopted Son, and remains faithful to what God asks of him. Through his fidelity Joseph bear witness to us that no matter how powerful Satan's hold on us, no matter how deep the darkness of sin, the grace of God is never wholly absent; no matter how hard, faith is never impossible, hope never really extinguished, and love and forgiveness are always possible for us.

A Blessed and Merry Christmas to all!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory