Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
It was the night of the big Christmas pageant. The church’s pastor faced a huge dilemma when the director came running to her in the midst of costume-robed angels and kings and exclaimed, “We have no Joseph! The boy who was to play this part is at home with the flu.” The pastor said, “Well. Let some shepherd stand near the manger with Mary. Nobody will miss Joseph. He doesn’t even have a speaking part.”
If you think about religious art that depicts the scene of the birth of Jesus, you may recall that Joseph is portrayed as an old man in a brown homespun robe, often half asleep or lying on a mat in dream state. Sometimes Joseph isn’t even in the nativity scene at all or is overshadowed by the cows and sheep and shepherds—appearing more like part of the scenery than an active participant in the holy drama.
There is an interesting three-paneled painting that hangs in the Cloisters in New York City. It was painted by Robert Campin in the 15th Century, the same period as one of our stained glass windows in our Lady Chapel. The triptych is an oil painting named Annunciation or, more commonly, “The Mèrode Altarpiece.” Its largest panel and the principal focus is the angel’s annunciation to Mary — beautiful in its striking, bright color, in the rich drapery that Mary wears, in the beautiful room that surrounds her.
To the right, in a smaller panel, is a man at work in a small, rather shabby workshop. He sits alone at his workbench with many carpenter’s tools surrounding him. An open window looks out on a typical small town. There is nothing “religious” in this scene. No angel, no candle, no holy book, just an old man hard at work in his carpenter’s shop.
Usually, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear a Gospel in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear God’s Son. Not today. No, today we get poor old, forgotten Joseph who gets his own angelic visit. In the Cloister’s painting, Joseph is just going about his business, working as he did everyday with not little anxiety or worry. Soon after, he would learn the news that the angel delivered to his fiancée, Mary.
An angel will also visit Joseph, not in the bright light of day, but rather when he jumps up in a cold sweat, having learned in a holy dream, full of words of an ancient prophesy, that Mary’s pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit, that he is to accept this child as his own, raise the child, and name him Jesus. That’s a lot for a fellow to swallow from one angel in the middle of the night.
“In the Truth About Angels in the Bible,” Candida Moss writes: “Angels have been made over into the shoulder-length haired, white-robed Caucasians that adorn laminated prayer cards. They’ve been identified as supernatural figures who provide assistance in times of trouble. But, biblically speaking, angels are as likely to be sending a message as delivering one. If you’re looking for spiritual assistance then you should call a saint. If you meet and angel, you should probably run.”
Our twenty-first century thinking might ask why all this would be so troubling for Joseph? Well, in first century Palestine, it was the custom for parents to arrange the marriages of their children years before they actually got hitched. Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” which meant much more than our contemporary situation of “engagement.”
Through betrothal, a woman was bound to a man through formal words of consent. Even though she did not live with the man, she was viewed by society as his wife. It could be years before the bride moved into the home of the groom, at which time the marriage ceremony took place and it is in this timeframe between betrothal and marriage where we find Joseph and Mary in the story.
Mary was pregnant. The couple had not had any physical relationship with each other. Joseph is faced with the dilemma of dealing with what his family and customers will perceive as her betrayal and adultery. Jewish Law demanded that the men of the village take such an unfaithful woman to the entrance of her father’s house and stone her to death. But Joseph was a decent, kind man and could never have allowed young Mary, his betrothed, to be killed. He would, instead, quietly terminate the contract of this betrothal and let Mary slip away in the night to get on with her now very complicated life.
Then God intervened through a dream and, the way the story goes, everything hangs on what Joseph decides to do. If he believes the angel, Mary will have a home and a family and Jesus will have a foster daddy. If Joseph thinks the dream was just a nightmare, then Mary becomes an outcast, is stoned to death or, at the very least disowned by family and forced to eke out a meager living for herself and her illegitimate child.
We know the happy ending here. Joseph listened to the angel and believed but, as romantic as this all sounds, the reality is that his leap of faith came at great cost to him and meant that he entered into Mary’s disgrace. There are hints in the Gospel that Jesus was always regarded by his townsfolk as illegitimate, so this family likely had a difficult life. It is no wonder that the angel told Joseph not to be afraid.
The heart and soul of this story is found in the love and trust that Mary and Joseph shared. No proofs, no attorneys, no guarantees. This is a Gospel about a good, faithful man who wakes up one day to find his life looking more like a train wreck, yet chose to trust and believe.
Can any of us relate to this feeling? Has your life ever been invaded by circumstances beyond your control, with terms you may not have chosen? Have you been tempted to walk away from some part of your life that you did not bargain for? We make our plans and think we know how things should work out for us? Then, kaboom, we find ourselves overwhelmed by circumstances we never factored into the equation, maybe experiencing life very differently from the way we had in mind. “How did I ever get here?” we might ask. And, “How the heck do I get out?”
God has given us stories like this to remind us that those are the times, as with poor Mary and Joseph, that God is in the midst of all the mishigos with us. Dreams are an important channel of God’s communication system with us. Joseph and Mary had hearts and lives that were open to mysterious visitors and poetic ambiguity. Don’t be surprised if, when you are nearly exhausted from the way your brain is whirling, your weariness allows you to sleep and to dream…to hear God’s angelic messenger whispering softly…”Do not be afraid.” Today’s Gospel gives us permission to think about our own dreams—both the dreams that float in our sleep and the dreams we ponder by day, dreams of our heart, dreams of our future.
Before we put this story to bed, let’s remember that, while most of Joseph’s life goes unmentioned in the Gospel and never spoke a word that was recorded there, he carried out an astonishingly important task: raising God’s Son for the first ten years of his life and even into adulthood. Jesus would have learned much of what he knew about faith from his mother and his foster father. Joseph represents the holiness of the hidden life, doing meaningful, ordinary things without fanfare.
There is another piece of art work by a Coptic nun that portrays the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It shows the infant sitting on the shoulders of a young, robust Joseph. Mary is actually standing at one side and a servant on the other. In this painting, Joseph is front and center. So the next time we’re singing “Silent Night” and get to the part about the “Mother and child,” let’s not forget about the fellow in the background, the guy who cared for them the rest of his life, silently. And without any need for adulation or notoriety or recognition. Not a bad example to follow.