In the Name…
Merry Christmas. Yes, it's the Fifth Day of Christmas, as the song goes. Five golden rings and all that. So, you can still wish people a Merry Christmas for a few more days if you don't mind getting some funny looks.
Well the angels have sung, the shepherds have gone back to their fields, and we have gathered before the Manger, heard the story of the Birth, and sung the familiar carols, and now, our Gospel today leads us, as is customary on these Sundays of the Christmas Season, to reflection upon the Holy Family who were at the centre of all our attention.
The setting is the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old and the pivotal text is, "Did you not know I must be in my Father's house?" It's a far cry from the Bethlehem manger and it presents us with a scene with which we can all identify - two parents worrying over a stray child. Of course, we are reminded this is no ordinary child. But, these are also no ordinary parents.
Mary, the incredible paradox of Virgin Mother, and Joseph the....the...... Virgin Father? Does that title seem right for him? Sounds a bit odd doesn't it? What about Joseph anyway? What kind of man was he? I mean, we see a lot of Mary in Scripture, all through Jesus' ministry right up to the Cross and beyond at the founding of the Church at Pentecost. But, Joseph is almost invisible and yet, when you consider it, he had to have been the strongest influence on the young Jesus growing up.
Mary, we know, was chosen by God for her special role. Surely, then, Joseph could be no accident and Scripture must tell us something about him. In fact, it does and what it reveals is that he was a man who lived incredibly close to God.
The first time he appears it is as the man engaged to Mary. The Bible says he learns that she is pregnant and decides to quietly break off the engagement. Now this simple fact has often been used to brand Joseph as a typical male-chauvinist, patriarchal, authority figure only concerned about himself and nobody else, least of all his fiancée. After all, what sane man would believe her incredibly crazy story and lame excuse? Angels visiting - hail Mary full of grace. Give me a break!
But, consider this. Consider this. What if, he did believe her? What if Joseph really, and I mean really, believed what Mary told him - that she had been chosen by God for a very special, unique, task – to bear the Messiah? How would he react? How would you react if you believed your wife or husband, your son or daughter, had been set apart by God for some special purpose?
So, yes, Joseph resolved to divorce her, but not to get rid of her. To get rid of himself. He wasn't angry or disappointed or let down or betrayed - he was in awe. Like Jacob at Bethel, Moses before the burning bush, or Ezekiel at the Chebar, he was petrified at being in the presence of holiness. Lord, I am not worthy. And so, he prepared to step out of the picture and surrender his earthly claims to her as husband. If God had chosen Mary for something, then he was not going to get in God's way. He did not believe he was worthy, worthy enough to be involved.
This alone should tell us that Joseph was no accident. Joseph was in love with Mary, yet he was prepared to let his love of God take precedence.
How many husbands would have behaved with that deep sense of responsibility? How many would have had that degree of humility to let God be in control of the situation? Oh, yes, Mary was chosen - but, so was Joseph. In fact, as we read, nothing less than an angelic visitation was able to convince him not to divorce her. He had to be assured that he had a role in God's plan. Nothing Mary said could change his mind. So, not only was he a man of deep humility and faith, he was also a man of prayer. He was so in touch with God that, even if he didn't understand, he was obedient.
This virtue comes out several more times. He responds to the angel who tells him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. He responds to the angel who tells him it’s safe to return. He responds to the angel who tells him to live in Nazareth. God speaks and Joseph responds. What better man to raise the Son of God?
And, you notice, Mary doesn't question him when he tells her what the angels said. She doesn't say: “Excuse me but, all generations will call me blessed, not you, and I think I've got some input here.” No, she believes him implicitly. What a relationship. Total trust in each other and in God.
And, Joseph, as head of the family, was also the one chiefly responsible for the religious instruction of Jesus. It would have been Joseph who taught Jesus to sing the Psalms and read the Scriptures, who would have taught the rules of spiritual discipline - fasting, prayer, and tithing - who would have taught Jesus his building trade and, as they worked together, spent hours talking about life and nature establishing the basis for parables yet to come. God would not have entrusted his Son to anyone who would have been unsuited to the task. We make much of the call of Mary, but, we need to equally consider the call of Joseph.
Which brings us to the Gospel scene this morning and the text that can be interpreted as either being "in my Father's house", or "about my Father's business." Either will do because the word for "house" can also mean a business. We still use it that way today as in the House of Fraser stores or House of Dereon clothes. It was the Jewish custom of the time that at age 12 a son would declare what profession he wished to follow. Imagine that - at 12! We have college graduates who still can't make up their minds. So, it's not just that Jesus is in the Temple, he's also declaring his profession.
This is the only time we see Jesus as a youth because this is the only time we need to see him - at this pivotal moment when he fulfils the custom. He will follow his Father's business, his house.
Tradition has it that Joseph died shortly before Jesus began his public ministry. What thoughts were in his mind as his days were drawing to a close? Disappointment, perhaps, that he would not see the results of a lifetime, but, certainly some satisfaction, that for all those years he had tried to do his best with what God had given him. Perhaps he thought of the final words of Moses to another Jesus, a Jesus descended from another Joseph who also found God's purpose revealed in dreams, "Be strong and of good courage, for you shall go with this people into the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall put them in possession of it." For that, indeed, would be this Jesus' work, to bring us into a promised land, a heavenly kingdom.
Joseph, then, stands at the end of a line of men and women of faith who lived and died inspired by God's vision.
May we learn from Joseph the qualities which will make us effective in that work. His humility, obedience, reverence, and the depth of spirituality which makes for strong families and godly lives.
In the Name...