December 24, 2016: Christmas Eve Homily
Joseph doesn’t get a lot of attention at Christmas, does he. Just look at the traditional repertoire of Christmas carols, and you’ll see. There are carols about Mary, the baby Jesus, the town of Bethlehem, many, many more about Mary, a few about the Christmas Star, the Wise Men, some more about Mary, plenty more about Jesus, the shepherds, and there is even a line about how, “the cattle are lowing.” Even the cows around the manager get a mention. But how often do you hear a Christmas carol, or any hymn for that matter, that so much as mentions Joseph? Mary and even Pontius Pilate make it into the Nicene Creed which we will recite in a few minutes, but not Joseph!
Why? Why doesn’t Joseph get more attention at Christmas? Why is he kinda off in the background as scenery behind Mary and the newborn baby?
It has nothing to do with his character, that is for certain. You’ll remember that Jospeh thought long and hard about how he would handle the fact that Mary was pregnant. Mary becomes pregnant during their engagement, but not by Jospeh. Under these circumstances, Joseph should divorce Mary. The normal procedure would be for Joseph to initiate court proceedings. Mary would be charged with adultery; she would be put out of her family home, a scandal in the community would engulf her. Can you imagine Joseph’s agony? Mary has betrayed his trust. Her private affair will soon become public scandal. Mary will face legal judgement, and if she is spared, she will bear the stigma of social condemnation.
Whatever feelings knocked around in Joseph’s head and heart, he finally comes to a decision. As a faithful Jewish man, he will keep the law and divorce Mary. But as a faithful Jewish man, Joseph will also show mercy. While he decides to divorce Mary, he decides to do it quietly, out of court. He will lovingly spare his fiancé public humiliation and despair. It is a compromise. It is the best he can do. Jospeh’s decision is to follow the laws of his faith, but with a hand of mercy. Having made his decision, he sleeps on it.
Now as Joseph is sleeping, and as God is known to do, an angel appears to him. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” I’m not sure this did much to soothe Joseph’s mind. It did, however, confirm that something truly amazing was about to happen. The angel announces to Joseph the virgin birth of the Son of God. This announcement—that God is going to be born as a child from Mary’s womb—displaces Joseph, just as a meteor displaces tons and tons of soil when it hits the earth. Christ’s coming as a baby in the manger displaces all things, unearthing us and all conventional wisdom and understanding. God doesn’t play by our rules. This urges Joseph, to reframe everything in a new and holy way; it moves Jospeh to rethink his relationship with Mary. It is not easy, it is comfortable, it may lead him to do things he would never have expected to do. But, in the end, isn’t that what the birth of a child is all about?
So where does Joseph land after he is displaced, made to rethink his decisions? An unplanned pregnancy, the appearance of an angel, an announcement that this child will save the world—where is Joseph? He’s in the background, and I’m not convinced that that’s a bad thing.
We have many manger scenes in our house—some that have been passed down from family members, others that we have collected in antique shops, and some that were gifts. There is one, all white porcelain, on our piano this year. As I opened the box and unwrapped each figure from its newspaper cocoon, the usual suspects were there: camels and sheep and cows, two Wise Men standing and another kneeling, a few shepherds, Mary kneeling in prayer, and baby Jesus nestled in the manger. Arranging it, I noticed that someone was missing: Joseph. I looked around to be sure I hadn't mistaken him for a shepherd or a Wise Man, but he was not there. So I went back to the box and there he was, all the way at the bottom, buried under crumpled news paper. As I unwrapped him and placed him next to Mary, I noticed something profound. Jospeh’s posture is not one of prayer or adoration or even of shock. No, as he looks down at the child he will raise and nurture, his face is serene and his right hand is extended, pointing to Jesus. He was the last to come out of the box, he was left behind, in the background—and the whole time he was pointing to Christ.
Friends, there is a message here and I don’t have to tell you that there are many Josephs, and Josephines, in the world today; you know them, and I do too. They are people who have been displaced by the birth of Christ, unearthed. They are people who stand in the background, are sometimes left behind, the last to come out of the box—but are always pointing the rest of us to Jesus. They are mothers and fathers who work endless hours to provide a safe and happy home for their children. They are husbands and wives and partners who care for their beloved no matter how sick, how forgetful, or how crippled they become. They are teachers and librarians and trash collectors and public servants who work for the common good, but are under appreciated and under paid. They are preachers and Sunday school teachers who cry out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, who are often unheard or met with disdain. They speak many languages, they have many different skin colors, and they believe many different things about God and the world. But there they are, pointing, pointing us to the Messiah, the Lord, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross.
This Christmas let us remember and give thanks not only for the Christ Child and his blessed Mother, but also for all the Jospehs and the Jospehines who point us to Jesus. But let’s not just remember and give thanks for them; let’s live as they do. They are not the loudest voice in the room, but the most compassionate; they don’t use their faith as a weapon, but as a tool of reconciliation; they never utter a word of hate or judgement, but simply speak and live in love; their faith is generous and constant, not biased or partial. Let’s live as they do. Let’s allow the good news of God’s coming to displace us from where we are, to unearth us, to shake us. Then, may each of us in what we say and what we do point others to Jesus Christ. He has come; let us adore him! Merry Christmas.