4th Sunday of Advent
23 DECEMBER 2001
Scriptual Reference: Isaiah 7:10-14, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-24

St. Joseph's Response to Divine Providence

       Joseph of Nazareth, a carpenter, has captured the Christian imagination for centuries. Byzantine iconographers depicted him as an old man with a long, gray beard, tenderly caring for his new wife and her child. The Spanish painter El Greco depicted him as a young, vigorous man, with the child Jesus wrapping his arms around Josephís legs. At St. Meinrad, Joseph is depicted as an imposing, Germanic figure 8 feet in height. His stern features are carved into solid oak; his large hand rests on the shoulder of the child Jesus, who holds a scroll depicting the fourth commandment, "Honor thy mother and father." Actually, we donít know very much about Joseph. We donít know what he looked like, or how old he was. Most of the information that we have about Joseph comes from in the gospel passage that we have just heard today from St. Matthew. We know that he was betrothed to Mary. Further, Matthew writes that Joseph was righteous. Joseph knew that Mary was pregnant, and that the baby was not of his making. According to the law, Mary would have been considered an adulteress, given her pregnancy. He was concerned about the prescriptions of Jewish law, which forbad a man from marrying an adulterous woman. Yet, because he was a man of strong conviction, kindness and compassion, he was unwilling to expose her to the punishment allowed by the Mosaic Law: death by stoning. So, he decided to divorce her quietly rather than to shame her publicly. Josephís reaction to Maryís predicament demonstrates that he was truly a righteous man.

       Many of you may remember my encounter with the police officer on 56th St. not too long ago. Well, it happened again. This time, I was minding my own business driving along Interstate 74 towards Indianapolis on my way to the funeral home. I looked up, and saw the flashing blue and red lights and pulled over, thanking God once again that I was wearing the Roman collar. Before I could get a word out, the officer in rapid-fire succession told me his name, and asked if I knew how fast I was going. Truthfully, I replied 70-72 mph. I was confident in my answer, since I had been using cruise control. The officer replied that he had clocked me west of Brownsburg going 82 mph. "West of Brownsburg," I thought. Calmly, I informed that officer that I was Fr. Zint from St. Malachy, and that I had gotten onto the interstate IN Brownsburg. I was not driving on I-74 west of Brownsburg, and it was not possible that he could have clocked me driving 82 mph there. In another flurry, the officer apologized and informed me that he had pulled over the wrong car. Then off he went.

       Joseph might have felt a little like I did when he had his dream. An angel of God had informed him that Maryís child was born of the Holy Spirit to save the sins of the people. Joseph may have felt confused, a little bewildered, and wondering if God had caught the right person. After all, the whole situation seems a little implausible. Maryís child was the fulfillment of the prophecy? This child would be named Jesus, a name which means, "God saves"? It seemed impossible that this could happen. But there are times when God, just like the police, breaks into our lives when we least expect it. And in Josephís dream, more powerfully than ever, God breaks into the course of human history to assist his people. We have a word to describe this phenomenon: we call it Providence.

       Archabbot Lambert, a Benedictine monk and the spiritual leader of his brother monks at St. Meinrad, tells a story about his vow of obedience during his early years as a young monk and priest. The Archabbot at that time had assigned Fr. Lambert to offer retreats to the pilgrims who would come to visit St. Meinrad. Lambert, however, was quite intimidated to speak in front of crowds. He went to see the Archabbot about his problem. "Fr. Abbot," he said, "I would like to be reassigned." "Why is that?" the archabbot asked. "Well," he replied, "I am too nervous to be a retreat master. In fact, I get so nervous when I deliver a conference that I go to the bathroom and throw up after Iím done." "My son, listen carefully. I will reassign you," the abbot said, "when the people to whom you deliver your conferences throw up after youíre done." Fr. Lambert went on to become a master speaker and homilist, a world-renowned retreat director, and later became Archabbot.

       The last line of todayís gospel is of extreme importance: "When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." Joseph, in other words, was willing to be obedient to Godís will in his life. Despite the hardships and difficulties that his little family would face given the situation, he as willing to cooperate with God. Godís providence, his desire to break into the affairs of humanity, hinged on the humble obedience of Joseph. Obedience is not be understood in a robotic or subservient way. Joseph was not some sort of slave to God. The word obedience comes from a Latin word which means, "to hear" or "to listen." Joseph heard, and listened carefully, to what God was saying to him. Being a righteous man, he understood the importance of Godís message to him. He must have understood that God needed his cooperation and support to fulfill the ancient prophesies.

       We may not know how old Joseph was. We may not know what he looked like. We may not know if he was a widower. But we do know an awful lot from this little story from St. Matthew: we know that he was a righteous man. We know that God providentially broke into his life with a special plan. We know that he obediently listened to and cooperated with God. There is a lot we can learn from him. God calls us to be righteous. God desires to break into our lives with a special plan. And he wants us to listen to him and to obediently cooperate with his plan. You see, the gospel describes the coming of Jesus into the world 2000 years ago, and how Joseph played a role in Jesusí coming. But Jesus is coming again, and this time, God needs us to help him bring the presence of his son into the world. +

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