Matthew 1: 18-24
A mother tells the story of her five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son watching the Christmas story on TV. As she was preparing dinner she heard her littlest one ask his older sister, “What is a virgin?” The mother said, “As my mind raced to come up with an answer, her 5 yr, old daughter answered it, ‘It’s a lady who eats all her vegetables.”
One afternoon after hearing the Divine Praises at benediction, a family were leaving church and their little 3rd grade son asked his parents, “What’s a most chased spouse?” The mother replied: “A chaste spouse is someone’s husband or wife who is good and pure and holy. Why do you ask?” “Our prayers in church called St. Joseph Mary’s most chaste spouse,” he said. Mom asked, “What do you thing it means?” A little embarrassed the boy answered, “Well, I thought it meant that all the girls chased after him, but Mary got him in the end.”
There are two places in the New Testament that describe the birth of Jesus. One is in the Gospel of Matthew and one is in the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke’s version that we know the best and that we will hear on Christmas day. Luke is quite a storyteller. He describes the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a manager, the appearance to the shepherds, and the angel’s song of Glory to God in the Highest.
Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is very different. We almost heard it this morning in the gospel. But because we are still in Advent, the Lectionary stopped just before it, in order to save the proclamation of the incarnation for Christmas. Today’s gospel describes Mary’s unusual pregnancy and Joseph’s doubt about whether he should take Mary into his home. Joseph would have felt when he discovered that Mary was with child; Shock, devastation, betrayal. He knew he was not the father.
Now in time, Joseph learned that Mary had not been unfaithful, that his life was not ruined, and that his marriage could proceed, although on terms he had never imagined. This doubt is resolved when an angel appears to him in a dream and assures him that everything is all according to God’s plan in time. But in that first moment when Joseph found out that Mary was with child, he certainly presumed that all was lost, that God was absent and unconcerned.
The experience of Joseph tells us that God is working in ways which are not immediately clear. God has a plan which is unfolding, but that unfolding takes time. Therefore some of the things which seem like complete disasters can, in time, lead to goodness and life. When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he was convinced that his life was ruined. But it was, in fact, the first step in the salvation of the world.
In light of this story of Joseph, we must be slow to judge when evil attacks us. Although God is always at work, it takes time to perceive what God is doing. Now this stance of faith in no way denies the reality and power of evil in our world. Sickness, tragedy, violence, and death are real. They do attack us and hurt us. But even as they press in against us, the person of faith continues to believe that God is in charge. God is active, and yet what God is doing is not completely clear. We cannot yet predict the exact way in which God is going to bring goodness in our lives.
Therefore when we receive bad news in our family, in school, at our job, it is appropriate to be in shock and to cope. But at the same time, the person of faith believes that those disasters will not derail God’s plan of life for us. When we make foolish choices or disastrous mistakes, we have to admit our failure and live with the consequences of our decisions. But even as we do so, we continue to believe that God is with us, guiding us to learn from our mistakes and to avoid them in the future. When someone we love is attacked by sickness or death, we are rightfully shocked and discouraged. But we continue to believe that God will provide opportunities for love, for reconciliation, and for growth.
Those of us who know the story of Joseph know how radically things can change as time passes and God’s plan becomes clear. Evil, sickness and death will always be a part of our lives. But the Christian knows how to face them. Even as they press in against us, we face the future with hope because we believe that the present moment is only a part of the plan that God has in store for us. Although the present moment is a disaster, it can lead to goodness and life. When the present situation is a total loss, it is still somehow a part of our salvation.