Traditionally, we refer to the 4th Sunday of Advent as “Mary’s Sunday”. Two years out of three, our gospel readings truly focus on Mary, by telling either the Annunciation or Visitation with Elizabeth episodes, both from the gospel of Luke. This year, however, we hear more about Joseph: his reaction to what didn’t seem like particularly “good news” at the time, and his eventual coming around, as found in Matthew. Each gospel was written with its own intent and audience in mind, and reflected a particular stage of christological understanding, as it developed over the decades following Jesus’ birth. So Matthew doesn’t give as full of an account of Jesus’ birth as Luke does (while Mark and John have none, for their own reasons), but what information he does include is highly oriented towards matching these details with OT scriptures. For example, the passage we read today from Isaiah is quoted directly following the description of Joseph’s dream in Matt 1, even though Isaiah refers to a specific historical event in the course of the Babylonian invasion that took place centuries prior. Also, immediately preceding Joseph’s dream in Matt 1, we find the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph to Abraham. (Luke 3 has a similar one, though we don’t find any tracing of Mary’s lineage anywhere).
All of this is to explain why, in contrast to other gospel writers, it was important to the writer of Matthew to include information about Joseph, for in doing so, he emphasized Jesus’ legitimacy as the descendant of David. This was likely a good strategy to help convince his 1st century Jewish contemporaries to join Jesus’ followers, as was his purpose; but today, many of us have forgotten such concerns, and regard Joseph as a merely incidental character of the nativity drama. Is he though? Are any of the characters really peripheral, or do all of them have something to teach us about ourselves and our own participation in the story of God’s birth in the world?
More than a decade ago, on a trip to Ecuador, I acquired a ceramic nativity set that includes a not-at-all incongruous looking lama. Fast forward a few years, and the first figurine to suffer damage at my kids’ hands was Joseph, who had a piece of his base broken off. Since then, I have always set up my little creche by having him lean on Mary, and delighted in pointing out his similarity to most human fathers, who cannot stay properly upright without their partner’s help. Of course, the reverse is also often true. I have found a particularly touching revision of Joseph’s role in this year’s nativity play at my daughters’ school, in which he appeared quite anxious upon going to sleep, and when the angel appeared, the question that Joseph posed was not how he might best mitigate the disgrace brought upon him by Mary’s condition, but rather whether it would be safe for her to travel all the way for the census so late in pregnancy. (Which the angel assured him would be fine, since the birth of Emmanual was already foretold). Indeed, it’s not difficult to see how with the help of this dream and the angelic visit, Joseph’s initial hesitation might have been transformed into a genuine concern for his family, the extent of which we can only imagine when it came to such episodes as the flight into Egypt, which reflects the struggles of many fathers of all times and places.
So yes, both Mary and Joseph had a lot to give, and a lot to give up, as part of their commitment to God. And so did every other nativity character give up something for the sake of the special baby, even if temporarily. From making a little extra room to accommodate the divine guest, to leaving their immediate cares and concerns, or the privilege of dwelling in heavenly realm for the sake of worship, to journeying far and wide so that to meet him and bring the best gifts they could find. Similarly, none of us is ever peripheral to the building of God’s kingdom on earth a little more fully with each passing moment. Certainly, one does not have to become a parent to appreciate that it is through our self-giving that God is born to us on earth, and the world may be saved.
And what the stance of genuine self-giving ultimately does entail, is holding everything we have lightly. It’s not spiritually productive to maintain too tight of a hold on either the positive attributes of our lives, such as gifts, resources, and purposes, or the negatives, such as our worries, preoccupations, and self-pity. And the least control we have in life is, in fact, over the sense of God’s presence with us. In my daughters’ pageant, we all watched with bated breath as, for a while, a young actress was rocking a real baby on her lap, her face revealing increasing levels of anxiety. But the soother would just not stay in, and at the very words of “Away in a Manger” about the baby waking up and not crying, the child’s mother came in for the rescue and swiftly swapped her for a doll that was easier to hang on to for the remainder of the play, but certainly much less exciting.
Likewise, in most Orthodox icons, Mary is shown to hold the baby tenderly, but rather awkwardly – with inexperienced and rather stiff hands – to show that while she doesn’t really know how to fully grasp her sacred gift, she is aware that it was not hers to keep. She must have had to say “let it be” not just once at Annunciation, but countless times at every stage of her journey as the Mother of God. And I’m sure that Joseph’s openness to discernment also served him well past that one night. Let us keep their examples in mind, as with God’s help, we too, continually strive to understand when and whom/what to let go or hold on to; to rescue someone in trouble or support/accompany their learning; to trust in God’s timing, and yet do our best to handle our responsibilities; and above all, to look for evidence of God’s love in our lives, but not to mistake it for the divine Love itself. Thanks be to God.