Fourth Advent: Fear Not All You Josephs
Today’s Gospel reading centers on Joseph. In fact, the infancy narratives in the Gospel of Matthew focus more on Joseph than on Mary. That is because the Gospel of Matthew was initially directed to Christians of Jewish descent. Matthew wants to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets in Sacred Scripture as coming through the line of David. Joseph is a direct descendent of David. In the Gospel of Matthew Joseph names the child. He gives his own spirit and all he is to the child. The child is Son of God and Son of Mary, but also, through the action of naming the child by Joseph, He is Son of David.
Joseph is told by the angel, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife into your home.” Do not be afraid. These words occur over and over in scripture whenever a human has an experience of the Divine. The angel Gabriel first appeared in Daniel 10 and told Daniel not to be afraid. Gabriel is found in the Gospel of Luke telling the priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, not to be afraid. Those were also Gabriel’s words to Mary. The shepherds were told by angels not to be afraid. Jesus told Simon Peter and his fishing mates not to be afraid after they almost broke their fishing nets when they listened to Jesus’ instructions. The disciples were told not to be afraid when they heard the voice of the Father during the Transfiguration. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were told not to be afraid when they came upon the empty tomb. And in today’s gospel, again, Joseph is told “Do not be afraid.”
What is all this fear referring to? Well, there is good fear and there is bad fear. If a college girl is afraid to walk across campus in the dark, that is good fear. It keeps her safe. If we are afraid that going to a certain place or going with a certain person, bad things will happen, that is good fear. It is keeping us from an occasion of sin. There is also bad fear. Bad fear is hopelessness and despair. Judas Iscariot hung himself after he betrayed the Lord because he feared that God would never forgive him. That was bad fear. When scripture says, “Fear the Lord,” it is referring to the good fear that leads us to acting in a way that shows our respect and reverence for God.
Joseph was told in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. What was he afraid of? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly had to do with Mary’s pregnancy. Perhaps, on the human level, there was the fear of what other’s would think when a normal sized baby was born four or five months after the couple began their marriage. Perhaps Joseph was worried over what this Mary was really like. After all, she was a young girl and, as far as Joseph initially knew, she was pregnant by someone else. Did he really want to risk the heartbreak she would inevitably bring upon him? Or perhaps, Joseph’s fear was provoked by the religious authorities. What if he got caught protecting Mary and was accused of joining her in violating the Law of Moses? Wouldn’t he also be punished for protecting an abomination to God’s law and thus co-operating with the sin? And maybe there was another reason why Joseph was afraid. Maybe he was afraid that he could not love this child as every child has a right to be loved. It was not his child. How could he love the child as a father. We hear this reading about Joseph’s concerns over and over, but we forget that on the human level, Joseph must have thought, “What a mess this is. And what a greater mess it will be if I complete this marriage and take Mary as my wife.”
But the angel said to Joseph in the dream, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph heard, “Trust God, for the child is special. And so is his mother. There is no other man. There is the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid. Trust God.” And Joseph put his complete trust in the angel and in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, how to deal with the Law of Moses, how to deal with Joseph’s concerns for the child. God would give him the ability to love the child as a father. And Joseph named the child Jesus. From this point on, this wasn’t just Mary’s child and the child conceived through the Holy Spirit. This was now also Joseph’s child, a son of David.
Fear is not the characteristic of the Christian. At the heart of Christianity is love, or to be more precise, sacrificial love. Our whole lives must consist in ceaseless efforts to love more and more as Jesus loved, sacrificially. To do this we need a gift from God. That gift is trust. We need to trust God to work things out. We have to trust the Lord to remove the fear that prevents us from loving. We have to trust the Lord to protect us from hurt when we take a step outside of ourselves and a step into love. So many of us are afraid, afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to risk. We need to trust God so we can make His Presence real for others.
Behold is the theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. God is working in our lives. When we are aware of this, when we behold His Presence, we can then bring his presence to others.
Christmas is not a time for fear. It is a time for love. We have to trust God to protect and develop our love. Can we love others as they deserve to be loved? Will we be hurt in return? These are the questions that Joseph asked himself as he stirred in his sleep. He heard an angel say, “Do not be afraid.” When Joseph took the step from fear to trust, the world beheld its Savior.
Perhaps, this Saturday, Christmas, or throughout this season, some of us will have to associate with someone we have had words with during the last year. This could be a neighbor, a relative or even a member of the inner circle of our family. We might worry, “If I am kind to that person, will I once more be spat upon? Will I be hurt again?” Is this really important? We have no reason to fear. We only have to trust God and to love. For the one who calls us to love has given us the Gift of Love on Christmas Day.
We have been called to love. God will show us how to do it. Now, like Joseph, we need to name the child. We need to make Jesus an intimate part of our lives so that all that He is and all that we are may be one.
And behold! Behold the wonders that God’s love can work in our lives.