For Luke, Mary dominates the infancy story. But for Matthew it is Joseph. In the account we have there are echoes of the other Joseph, the favourite of his father Jacob, who gave him a coat of many colours. This Joseph also had dreams and also went down to Egypt. These echoes are used by Matthew to link the history of Israel with the coming of Jesus and show how Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises of God.
The first Joseph went through many trials – rejected by his brothers, betrayed to foreigners, imprisoned by Pharaoh, but in the end he “saves” his family. The second Joseph – through his “obedience of faith” (Romans) – opens the way for Jesus to come into our world. He too would be rejected, betrayed and condemned. But he would save not just his “brothers” and sisters of Israel but the whole human family.
So we look at Joseph for a moment. Something happens in his life which causes him great pain and anxiety. What is he to do? Being a “man of honour” he wants to cause as little fuss as possible. He doesn’t want to embarrass Mary but at the same time he has to act.
At this point he has a dream in which he is addressed as “son of David”. This in itself is a loaded title as it prepares us to understand that Jesus will be born into the family of David, giving him a particular human identity. Joseph’s immediate acceptance of the message opens the way for what we call Christmas, the birth of the child Jesus into a human family.
I have mentioned that Joseph’s “obedience of faith.” This is the quality that enabled him to accept his unusual role. He doesn’t know what is going on. But he accepts in anyway.
Paul introduces the phrase at the beginning of his letter to the Romans – the second reading today – and at the end. He has come to “preach the obedience of faith.” The word (obedience) enters our life early – at home, at school. And if we go into the army or indeed any form of employment we are expected to “obey” the rules and ways of the organisation. This type of obedience – to a greater or lesser degree – is enforced. If you don’t obey there are consequences. Perhaps we can call it the “obedience of fear.”
But there is no “force” behind the obedience of faith. It is not an “outward” conformity to some set of rules or procedures. It is an inward attitude of mind and heart. If my husband or wife, or someone close to me, becomes seriously ill, I have a choice. Obviously it will be a time of great pain and anxiety but, at the deepest level, do I fight it and say, “Why me? God is unfair.” Or do I try to accept this new reality and say, “this is now my life.”
Sometimes people give up on their faith because something happens and they blame God for it. There is much concern in the Church at the moment about the way we treat divorced people. Even though the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is an older Church than ours, allows divorced people to marry again, we, in the Western tradition, do not. And we may all know people who say, “well, if that is how it is, count me out.” Their disappointment with the Church leads them to abandon their faith. “Obedience of Faith” on the other hand doesn’t change their status as divorced people – and they may or may not find themselves in a new marriage – but it does preserve their relationship with God.
The phrase, obedience of faith, means basically that I trust in God even though I do not understand. That is what the first Joseph did and that is what the second one did too. We live in a rational age where we want answers to everything instantly. Well, as we know, there aren’t immediate answers to everything. It is part of our human experience not to always see – what Newman called – the “distant shore.” For him one step was enough. The rest was a matter of trust and faith.
22 December 2013 Sunday 4 in Advent 1
Isaiah 7:10-14 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25Post published in: Opinions & Analysis