In the second half of Advent there is a heightened sense of longing which is evident in the readings as well as in the prayers of the Church. On December 17 we begin hearing what are referred to as the “O Antiphons” at Evening Prayer and during the Gospel Acclamation at Mass, a series of verses that are descriptions of the Messiah such as “O Key of David” or “O King of all nations and keystone of the Church.” The second major sign of the intensified longing is found in the Preface prayer said by the priest at Mass just before the “Holy, Holy” prayer: “…the Virgin Mother longed for Him with love beyond all telling….” Reflection upon this part of the prayer gives us some sense of what it must have been like for Mary in her nine months of waiting for this holy Child to be born. She must have longed to finally see Him, as all mothers have a similar longing during their pregnancies. But it was also a dark time historically, arguably not unlike our times in some ways. The longing of the people was for a savior who would finally come and set them free. Just when it seemed darkest, Mary received an angel into her room and in the ensuing encounter she spoke a resounding, though humble, “Yes!” Later, a man named Joseph also experienced a healing presence in the darkness of night; in a dream the same angel came to him with the message that Mary was truthful and that he would be the earthly (foster) father of the one who was to be the Light in the Darkness: God would bend so low that He would become close in a whole new way: He would become one of us.
With the emphasis on longing in all the Scripture readings and prayers, it is not until the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year that we even have a mention of Joseph and Mary. On that day the gospel focuses on the Annunciation event in which Mary is greeted by the angel and humbly speaks the most important reply in salvation history: “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) And in the first reading we get the connection to Joseph. (2 Sam 7: 1-16) The passage we hear is the one in which God makes the promise to David that from his lineage would come the Messiah: “The Lord reveals to you that He will establish a house for you…” David is the ancestor of Joseph, and thus in Joseph the messianic promise is fulfilled as soon as he takes Mary as his wife and gives Jesus the “house” (family) to be born into. And if we somehow miss the connection of David to Joseph in that reading, there is always the gospel of the Christmas (Eve) Vigil Mass to make it clear. Some people yawn and ‘roll their spiritual eyes’ when they hear this gospel because it is the genealogy of Jesus, a seemingly nondescript list of names. But we hear it for a reason: it is an essential piece of Christmas Scripture because it ties Joseph to his ancestor David, and in its structure shows that all along God had a plan, delineating how God fulfilled the promise made to David that the messiah would come from his line. It also reminds us of the importance of Joseph in salvation history. Simply put, in the way God chose to act: no Joseph, no Jesus.
Jesus needed a family into which He could be born. Having only an unwed mother would have been simply impossible in that culture. Mary would have appeared to be having a child outside of wedlock, something which was punishable by death according to Mosaic Law. But Joseph was not simply utilitarian, as some sort of ‘convenience’ for God to make things legitimate for Mary. If that was the case, God could have chosen any good man for the job. Rather, God chose this man of all those who came from that Davidic line for good reason. That Joseph was already a holy man is undisputed: he was described by Matthew as righteous, which means he was a man who understood his Jewish faith, possessing a sense of mercy and justice. Joseph was a man of discernment and had knowledge of the Scriptures, but it was the result of his prayer life which gave him the proper disposition for the difficult task of being the father-figure for Jesus: He already knew God and therefore understood fatherhood. Because he was already endowed with spiritual gifts, Joseph was the man God needed to assist Mary in her role and to assist Jesus in His. Joseph knew that the true spouse of Mary was the Holy Spirit, but it was his humility and love which enabled him to assent to this role. He loved Mary very dearly and he loved God with his entire heart and soul.
Joseph teaches us to trust in God. He was given scant details about what he was to do when the angel came to him in that first dream. But he trusted God so completely that he was able to do exactly what was needed, and to do it with the greatest of all humility. There is less about Joseph in the New Testament than just about any other figure – (in fact, he does not utter even one word in any of the gospels) – and yet his role was of the utmost importance in enabling the mission of Jesus. When reflecting upon what sort of man Joseph may have been it seems evident that he was a man of peace and at peace. Surely he was a man of peace, since he knew the Law and the Scripture well and was described as righteous. But despite the dark times, he must have also been at peace because he trusted God to help him in his role as earthly father of Jesus. Therefore he must have been at peace with himself and with the resulting hiddenness his role would take on. Even if he had been aware it would be so, it probably did not matter to him that he would become the most unknown and mysterious saint in Christian history. What mattered to him was that he did the will of God and to do that, he had to be a man of quiet depth and of trusting prayer. He simply gave everything he had to God and to the role to which he was called.
As quiet as Joseph is, we are wise to seek him in these last days of Advent. We are wise if we let Joseph be a calming influence by asking him to assist us in putting all our cares into the hands of God so that we are not burdened by them. We are wise if we let Joseph teach us how to discern, to ‘hear the voice of God’ as we sleep and to be alert to His presence in our work. We are wise if we ask St. Joseph’s intercession to help us find the way to reach out to those in need, but also to ask him how to find comfort in the midst of our own suffering. It seems to me that Joseph did not ask God to alleviate his fears so much as he may have asked for the courage and forbearance to work through them. I am sure he quaked with fear when the Roman soldiers questioned him at the census in Bethlehem, and I am sure he was quite anxious when inn after inn had no room for him and his pregnant wife in that first Advent. After all, Joseph, like all other holy people, was not perfect. But that he was able to carry out everything according to God’s plan is evidence enough that he had the fortitude, born of trust, to forge ahead.
As Advent draws to a close and Christmas morning is on the horizon let us strive to be more like Joseph by embracing the darkness of the night so that we might find a place for Jesus, the true Light of the World. Like Joseph we can find the peace of Christ for our own doubtful and restless hearts as we enter the stable, and therefore we can show those who are suffering, lost, cold, and lonely the way to Jesus, too. From Joseph we can learn humility such that we understand more deeply that the world does not depend upon us, but that God does. He shows us that it is not about self, it is not about what the world urges us to do, it is not even about doing anything at all; rather, it is about opening our hearts, letting go of our fears and also our plans, trusting that God will labor with us for the good of all. If we are willing to work without attention, but rather with great love and mercy to bring Jesus to those who are in need, we can do as he did. It is in quiet, humble, loving acts that we emulate St. Joseph and it is in this that he will lead us closer to Jesus, in whom we find our peace.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Joseph that we would grow in humility, wisdom, and love! May we seek the light of Jesus in the darkness without anxiety or fearfulness! May we learn to hear the voice of God in the angels who walk among us, and may we have the discernment of heart to recognize them! May we have the mercy and love to reach out to those who are suffering, lost, or are searching for the way to Jesus! And may we learn to trust in God completely, that we let go of our cares and simply rest in the comfort of the stable with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus! Maranatha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be on January 1, 2018. Meanwhile, may you have a grace-filled remainder of Advent and a Joyous Christmas!
1. This is a photograph I took while in Baveno, a town on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. These are the lights in the houses in the town which is on the hillside. I selected it for the beginning of the blog because it shows the darkness of night, but with the comfort of light from above as well as in the homes.
2. This painting is called David and Nathan by Matthias Scheits (1630-1700). I chose it because David received word of the Messianic Promise through the prophet Nathan who delivered the message from God that the messiah would be a descendant of David.
3. This painting is from the series called 11 Scenes in the Life of the Virgin, #5 - Marriage of the Virgin, by Giotto di Bondone. (Painted between 1304-1306) I chose it because I loved the humble postures of Joseph and Mary, but I especially loved Giotto's hint at Mary's pregnancy: her hand is on her slightly swollen womb, indicating a loving gesture to the Child growing within. You can find the painting at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_di_Bondone_-_No._11_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_the_Virgin_-_5._Marriage_of_the_Virgin_-_WGA09183.jpg
4. This is my photo of a statue I have called Sleeping Saint Joseph, a favorite statue of Pope Francis. It has become quite popular as a result of a homily he once gave. I chose to put the photo of the statue here because St. Joseph looks like he is sleeping peacefully, trusting so deeply in the Lord that he can rest despite the hardships he and his Holy Family faced.
5. This is an icon called St. Joseph Shadow of the Father by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I love that the child Jesus seems to resemble Joseph even though the only genes He would have received were those of Mary. I love the resemblance because it shows that Jesus truly
was in a father-son relationship with Joseph; that Jesus treated Joseph as such shows the greatest humility and respect. It also reveals how holy Joseph was and how much Jesus loved him. You can find this icon for purchase in one of many mediums (or for a closer look) at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-joseph-shadow-of-the-father-039-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This is a Christmas scene from a card I received many years ago. I just loved the jubilation seen in one of the shepherds.
7. I chose to use the Advent wreath with all four candles lit for two reasons. First, this post is for late Advent, so even though it will be posted just after the Third Sunday of Advent it is appropriate to hint at it being late in the season. And second, the fourth week of Advent is so short this year that I wanted to give a bit more emphasis to it.
Heart Speaks to Heart