I admit to being one of those people who has to straighten out a frame that leans. I suspect this says something about my inner desire for things to be aligned, though I certainly know life does not work that way at all. Therefore, it was to my initial consternation to see that one of the boxes for some light switches, and hence the switch plate, was installed in our new house clearly leaning to one side (so it cannot be straightened with a small nudge.) It is in our dining area, clearly visible. But last week after an electrician had been here I saw that he had forgotten to straighten it. I accepted this however, because a day or two earlier a realization had hit me during prayer and reflection: Jesus was born, perfect God and man, into an imperfect world, a world out of balance, askew, a-tilt. Thus, the switch plate became symbolic of the imperfection which is part of life and suggests that the arrival of the Son of God as a newborn baby offers the path to perfection through His presence among us. Everything about God sending His Son challenges the out-of-balance, sinful world. Even the parents intentionally chosen to raise Him provide this lesson through the contrast found between the perfect, sinless Virgin Mary and the imperfect, yet incredibly holy, Joseph. Perhaps this is a reminder that holiness can abound in an imperfect world, and that like Joseph and Mary we are called to be beacons of the presence of Christ in a world a-tilt.
Pope Francis dedicated this liturgical year to St. Joseph; therefore it is good to be mindful of his presence, often hidden, but oh, so important in God’s saving work. Remember that Joseph was asked to be the foster-father of Jesus, assured by the angel that Mary was pure. St. Joseph must have ascertained in his own quiet prayer that she was not like other women: to be chosen as mother and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (that is, made pregnant) meant that she was full of grace in a way that he was not. But rather than to be jealous of this, he revered her and loved her deeply as a husband should love his wife. At the time of Jesus’ birth Joseph was able to provide what meager shelter he could in a world dominated by Romans, a world in which he and his family were totally unwelcomed. Even with angels singing and a star aligning, when the Child arrived there were only two people at the manger, the perfect mother and the imperfect, but holy, foster-father. Note that in our crèche scenes we usually position the figures to flank the baby Jesus, so perhaps this can be a point of reflection upon the perfect and imperfect on either side of Him in harmony, a harmony that only God can bring about.
Soon after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family went to the Temple so that Jesus could be circumcised and named in accordance with Mosaic Law. Often when meditating upon the Presentation we focus our attention on Mary, but we must not forget that Joseph had the larger role in the male-dominated culture. It was Joseph who held the baby and announced His name as Jesus. And Joseph was there when Simeon and Anna, prophet and prophetess, approached them with praises to God and words about who this Child was and would become. The perfect mother held Jesus and the imperfect foster-father stood by. What could Joseph have thought of this? Dire words were directed to his beloved about a sword piercing her heart. But did he wonder why he was overlooked? Whatever suffering that was to come would pierce his heart, too. Joseph, of course, had no way of knowing what the future would actually bring. Surely those words were disturbing to him, but they do not seem to have deterred him in his love, and hence, his holiness.
That St. Joseph was not perfect should give us great comfort. He teaches us that we should never fear our own imperfections, but rather that our weaknesses are potentially our pathway to holiness. If we fear our imperfection then we will hesitate to ask God for healing and strength to grow, thus missing the opportunity to receive the gift of God’s mercy and love more deeply. Further, St. Joseph stands as a guide for us on this path. We can ask his assistance as one who knows how to be in the presence of God, to learn from him how better to approach with reverence, adoration, and love. Joseph can lead us closer to Mary and to Jesus, and he offers protection when we ask his intercession. Joseph responded to his call because he had a deep love for the Lord and had followed the Law with mercy and love faithfully throughout his life. Rather than focus on his shortcomings in the face of the perfection of Mary and Jesus, he allowed them to inspire his hard work which was done in great love. As we gaze upon the holiness contained in the Nativity scene this Christmas season we, too, can rejoice that we were created and loved just as we are and that we have been given the opportunity to be like St. Joseph in quiet but holy presence to others. Even a world a-tilt cannot overcome the grace God offers us, nor can it overshadow the saving power of God made present through the entire Holy Family.
May our reflection upon our crèche scenes lead us to deeper appreciation of our call to holiness! May we learn from St. Joseph how to persevere in trials and how to rely totally on God! May we embrace our own imperfection, but work with God’s grace to grow in faith, hope, and love! And may we reflect the love of the Christ Child in word and deed! Let us meet at the crèche in worship and joy! Christmas Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
1. My photo, Venice, Italy. The tower looked like it was leaning from this angle, a good representation of a world a-tilt.
2. Icon, The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This icon can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-nativity-of-our-lord-jesus-christ-034-william-hart-mcnichols.html
3. Fresco painting, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Giotto, found in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. Notice the positioning of Joseph and Mary; Joseph is right behind her.
4. My photo, Puerto Rico. Notice that the water finds a way around the tree, symbolic of our path to holiness which could include imperfection or suffering, but nonetheless finds its way.
5. Icon, The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This icon can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart