Christmas 2a 2011 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.+
Around this time every year our attention is drawn naturally to the Holy Family, because of the large role they play in the story of Christ’s birth. This is especially true of one member of the Holy Family, who apart from the events immediately preceding and following Christmas, receives virtually no attention in the rest of Scripture. Even during the Christmas season, the dominant image on religious Christmas cards, even on such secular things as postage stamps, is the Madonna and Child. But here is another figure, hidden in the background, tucked a bit out of the way, usually hanging his head a little, although often with his hand outstretched in protection towards Mary and Jesus. He is somewhat in awe at the mystery unfolding around him, this other figure, this other member of the Holy Family. Today’s Gospel asks him to step forward into the light, perhaps to take a little bow — for without him the wonderful work of Christmas and what followed would not have happened. I am talking, of course, about Joseph, the husband-to-be of Mary, the foster father of Jesus.
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Matthew tells us more about Joseph than any of the other evangelists: that Joseph was a good man, an honest man, a sensitive and caring man. He also tells us he was a dreamer. When he found his bride-to-be was pregnant, he could have had her hauled into court he possibly could have had her stoned to death; instead, Joseph decided to settle the whole matter quietly. But then came a dream: an angel warned him in a dream not to take offense. The angel instructed him to take Mary as his wife, and to accept the child that would be born as his own. This was a risk, but Joseph took it; he risked the wagging tongues, that could count to nine and new his marriage had not lasted a full nine months before the child was born. He treated Mary as his wife, and the child as his son.
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In today’s Gospel, Joseph again serves as God’s agent for deliverance. And like his namesake from the Old Testament, Joseph the son of Jacob, this Joseph is one who is a dreamer, who hears the voice of God in his dreams. Joseph’s first dream told him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, and in today’s Gospel there are three more dreams that bring Joseph God’s instructions. And like his namesake from the age of the patriarchs — Joseph the son of Jacob, who called his family into Egypt to escape the famine that came upon all the world when he was Pharaoh’s viceroy — like him, this Joseph son of David brought his family into Egypt to preserve their lives, escaping the horrible plot of King Herod. And that’s the first dream out of the set of three in our Gospel today.
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But let me say a word about Herod. Herod is one of the great villains of history, a mass-murderer of children. When the wise men told Herod of the birth of the new king, he set out to ensure that no new king would ever come from Bethlehem to take his place. I’m sure you recall the story, though our reading today leaves out those verses, just reporting that Herod died. It leaves out the part about how Herod ordered all of the boy-children up to two years of age to be slaughtered: that horrible night of holocaust when the soldiers ran through the streets killing any child they saw.
But what you may not know is that this Herod was so selfishly protective of his throne that not only did he kill off all of these children in Bethlehem, but he had is own sons killed as well, when they began to act as if they were ready to take over the reins of the kingdom. Herod is a man with the blood of innocents on his hands, and the blood of his own family, a man who placed himself before all others, including his own children.
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What a contrast: Herod and Joseph. Both of them fathers — but what a difference between them! One father risked everything — his reputation, his livelihood, his home — for the sake of a child who was not even his by blood, his foster son. The other father sacrificed the lives of innocent children, and took the lives even of his own flesh and blood in order to preserve his last shreds of power — power which must eventually pass away when he died, as all men die.
And who survived, after all? After Herod died, who came back? Who but the sweet dreamer Joseph, the loving foster-father Joseph, the man who gave up everything: who gave up security and a settled life at the prompting of God’s angel in a dream. After Herod died in misery, Joseph came out of Egypt (in response to dream #2) and settled in the north country, by the Sea of Galilee (in response to dream #3). Herod, the man who sought to save his life, to protect himself from all who might seize his throne, lost his life; while Joseph, the man who risked everything, preserved himself and his family.
And what a family it was: a wife who was not his wife after the manner of the flesh; a son who was not his son except by adoption. This is the Holy Family — not your typical nuclear family by any means — not the family of the “family values” spouting from the lips of politicians, hypocrites and demagogues. Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus represent the true family values, the truly human values that reflect what God values: sacrifice, forgiveness, trust, choosing life for another at risk to yourself, in doing what Jesus would later assure us is the greatest act of love: to risk your life for someone else.
For flesh and blood are not the stuff virtue is made from. Herod despised his own flesh and blood, and the flesh and blood of countless innocents; while Joseph loved Mary and Jesus as if they were his own dear wife and own dear son far better than many husbands and fathers love or have loved their wives or children. Flesh and blood is no guarantee of love, earthly or heavenly. Saint Paul told the church at Corinth that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”(1 Cor 15.50). And when it comes to blood as the binder of love, who can forget those words from the very beginning of human history, from Genesis, when the brothers — brothers in blood and flesh — one killed the other. And what happened? What did God say? “Cain, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” No blood is no guarantee of love, my friends; I wish it were. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. Flesh and blood are no guarantee of living heavenly values even here on earth! Only the imperishable and heavenly can support the weight of the greatest virtues, the strongest goods, the most precious grace. Love, the greatest love, is present only and whenever self-sacrifice is present, in flesh and blood families as well as in spiritual families — of which the church is the prime example.
The saying goes that blood is thicker than water, but I assure you that there is a water that is thicker than the cold blood of a Herod. There is a water that is as thick as the warmest blood of the most loving family. And that is the water of Baptism. For through the water of Baptism we all have become part of a new spiritual family, blessed, as Saint Paul says, with every blessing in the heavenly places. Through the waters of Baptism we have all, all been adopted, each and all of us have been adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ, adopted into a family defined by faith in him, and in love toward the saints — the other members of God’s great extended, adopted family. This is the family whose kinship is neither bounded nor defined by flesh and blood, by race or nation or clan. This is the great extended family begotten, as John’s Gospel says, not by blood or by the will of the flesh or by the will of man, but by God. It is God who has called us together, as surely as God called together the lost children of Israel, called them home from wherever they had been scattered to the farthest parts of the earth. And he who calls us children will not forsake us.
This is our hope, a hope to which we have been called, an inheritance which we possess as heirs through adoption, through the immeasurable greatness of God’s abundant power. It is an inheritance that it would be a shame to waste.
As we go through this new year, times will get rough — last year was rough enough! — and demands may come to seem unreasonable; should we feel as if our family is asking too much of us, a husband not being considerate enough, a wife demanding too much of our time; our children not paying attention to us, our parents seeming unreasonable; or if our church family should seem to be making too many demands, our time being eaten up by church work and responsibilities — if those feelings should come our way, let us pause for a moment and think about the sweet dreamer Joseph. Let us recall the patient foster-father, the loving, giving spouse; the patron of the church. Let us pause and recall how blessed we are in the opportunity to set self aside for the sake of others; how blessed we are to dream what Archbishop Desmod Tutu calls “God’s dream” — that all, all, all, are children of God, and that through Christ we can be all that it means to be a child of God.+