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A place in the crèche

Mary Jo Tully
Chancellor, Archdiocese of Portland

Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

The Fourth Sunday of Advent has always seemed sure proof that Christmas is coming. “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” What wonderful words for those who wait with eager anticipation.

For me, the main Christmas figures (aside from the Child, of course) are John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph. Despite the lack of historicity, I have always been a little tempted to find a statue of the Baptist to put in my Christmas crèche. Nonetheless, John the Baptist is not neglected during the liturgies of the Advent season. St. Joseph, though, seems the “silent but essential” figure and the Gospel of the day focuses on him.

Very little is known about St. Joseph. Our main sources of information are Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. Because Matthew is writing for the Jews, he wanted to tell stories that would connect Jesus to the prophecies the Jews knew. He also could assume that their very culture would give them a picture of Joseph’s importance. Matthew shows how events in the life of Jesus are fulfillments of promises made to the Hebrews.

What do we know? Joseph was of the line of King David and engaged to Mary who was found to be pregnant. All Joseph knows is that he is not the father. Matthew wants to be certain that we understand Joseph’s difficulty. He was a righteous man and wanted to do what the law demanded but Joseph was sensitive to Mary and decided to divorce her quietly.

Then God used the first of several dreams he would use to guide Joseph. In the dream, an angel told Joseph about God’s plan for his family and told Joseph to name him “Jesus.” It is not a simple thing that the angel tells Joseph to name the child. No matter what the name, he would have been claiming the child as his own.

A few months later, the time came for Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem, to be enrolled. So Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem where there was no room for them in the inn (Luke2:1-7). This is not recorded by Matthew but it is only by reading Matthew and Luke together that we can grasp anything about St. Joseph, the husband and father. We need to go to the Gospel of Luke to learn that after what seemed to be the loss of Jesus in the temple, Jesus “increased in wisdom and age and grace.” According to Jewish custom, Joseph would have been Jesus’ primary teacher of his faith. But Joseph has disappeared from our Gospels. His death is not recorded.

Though Joseph seems a forgotten presence, this Eucharist reminds us about his essential role in our Christmas celebration. Today we ask for wisdom, compassion, faith and a significant (even if hidden) place in God’s plan.

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