Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord,
Thy grace into our hearts,
That we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ thy Son
Was made known by the message of an Angel,
May by his Passion and Cross
Be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.
These words form the prayer with which we began Mass this morning, this fourth Sunday of Advent. And if they sound familiar, they should; they are the words of the final prayer of the Angelus, which, here at the monastery, we recite three times each day. This ancient prayer, traditionally recited at sunrise, at noon and at sunset, at the call of the Church bells, sums up the heart of our faith by reminding us of the Lord’s incarnation, his passion and death, and the salvation to which they bring to us. For many Christians over many centuries it has served as a daily reminder of what we believe, and that for which, in grace, we hope.
But today we are fast upon the close of Advent. In only two days more it will be Christmas. And while the ways in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus are many and varied, for all of us Christian it is a special time, a time of rejoicing and good will.
Yet, the Church today at the end of Advent begins our liturgy with a collect made up of a prayer we use every day, something, as it were, ordinary, common. Why? Why this prayer? Why this prayer today? The answer to this question, or, at least, one of the answers, lies in the startling announcement the Word today contains, and in the man at the center of this morning’s gospel passage: Joseph. Before looking at the announcement, let us look at Joseph, the man who received it.
Joseph, the Scriptures tell us, and they tell us really very little, “was a righteous man.” Some translations call him a “just man”, or an “upright man”. These are all way of translating the Greek word Matthew uses: dikaios. And behind this word, the scholars tell us, there probably hides the Hebrew word tsaddiq, the pious Jew. Joseph was a good and pious man, a just and righteous and faithful man, a man deeply aware of God’s covenant with his people, a man who sought to live his life in the light of this covenant, to know and do the will of God in all aspects of his life. Joseph was a righteous man.
But because of this Joseph had a problem; he found himself faced with a difficult, almost impossible, situation. He was betrothed to Mary with all the weight of the Jewish custom of the time: all the remained to finalize their marriage was the ceremony. Yet, Mary was pregnant, and Joseph wasn’t sure what to do. The Law, which was so important to him, would have him denounce her and have her punished. This was surely what God must want, after all it was his law, and as a pious man of his time, as a righteous man, Joseph wanted to be faithful to the Covenant, to do the will of God. And yet he cared about Mary and naturally didn’t want to expose her to shame and suffering. What was he to do? What was the solution that would allow him to do the right thing both before God and for Mary?
Whether Joseph was anguished because he thought that Mary had betrayed him as some, even St. Augustine, have thought, and as many, perhaps most people today think, or whether it was because he realized that God was present in Mary in a special way and so felt himself unworthy to be her husband, as St. Bernard, among others, thought we do not know. While we can suppose that this whole situation was very difficult for him, a great suffering, what we do know, because the gospel text clearly tells us so, is that, faced with this difficulty, he decided to break off his relationship with Mary, but to do it quietly, that is to say, privately. Taking this “middle way” Joseph could be faithful to the Lord and merciful to Mary at the same time. There need be no public humiliation for Mary, no punishment, and, at the same time, he could keep the law. And so this is what he decided to do.
The text doesn’t make clear how Joseph came to his decision, but we can suppose that it must have been a very difficult time for him, a time of confusion, a period of weighing the possibilities, of personal disappointment, of pain and disillusionment. Then Joseph slept. Having worked through all the possibilities and coming to a decision, after having made every possible human effort to salvage a desperate situation, tired, he slept.
It is here, in the sleep which came after all his human effort and goodness had been exhausted, that God intervenes. As Joseph sleeps an angel of the Lord comes to him with an amazing announcement, a good news: the son Mary bears in her womb is the Son of God, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He is to be the Savior of his people, the long awaited Emmanuel, God with us.
Now, let us return for a moment to this morning’s collect, the Angelus. In it we remember that it is an angel who brings to us the message of the incarnation, of salvation, the good news of the forgiveness of sins. In the same way, it is an angel of the Lord who brings to Joseph the glorious message of the birth of the Savior. And Joseph awakens, and, changing completely his plans, obeys, taking Mary as his wife and raising the Son of God as his own, giving him the name Jesus, “God saves”.
Joseph had been searching for a way to satisfy the demands of the Law while at the same time being merciful to Mary; after much struggle, exhausted, he decides to try and resolve things in secret, hoping not many find out, and falls asleep only to have all his plans and projects turned upside down by the Lord. So often, such is the way the Lord works.
And here, in this moment, God intervenes not with a solution to his problem, but with the revelation that his problem is not a problem at all, but the glorious irruption of God into creation and history; in Mary’s son Jesus God comes to restore man to his primordial destiny, to put him back on the way to the fullness of life for which he had been created, a fullness which Adam and Eve, tempted by the evil one and not trusting in the Creator’s love, had attempted to usurp for themselves, only to find it wither to dust in their hands. The serpent had lied: God was not jealous of them, he was not trying to limit them, but only wanted to give them what they so tragically tried to take for themselves; what had been intended as the greatest of gifts, the very life of God, was twisted into a curse, because they had tried to steal for themselves what could only be received as grace. In Jesus, God and man, Son of God and Son of Mary, the royal way to paradise and divinization is re-opened and, in and with him, we are invited to walk in it.
The way won’t be easy, the path to Resurrection, to divine life, twists and turns through the Passion and the Cross; Pour forth into our hearts your grace, that we may by his Passion and Cross come to the glory of his Resurrection, we prayed this morning. But grace has been promised, the way has been opened, and our Lord, like a shepherd, himself leads us. This the angel reveals to Joseph, this Joseph believes, this he obeys.
And this announcement is made to us once again, not only during Vigils on the 24th, or at Mid-night Mass on Christmas Eve, or at Mass on Christmas Day, but today, here and now, as we listen to the Word of God proclaimed in our midst.
Joseph the righteous, the pious man, believed the angel, he got up and did what the angel told him to do.
And how about us? How many angels have not tried to delight us with this same message, this promise of hope and glory? And how often have we refused to wake up, to believe, to obey. Think back. Angels there have been, though you may not have realized it at the time. Using ordinary words and everyday events, how many times has God not sent us angels with this good news, angels whom we have refused to believe? How many times have we refused to even wake up and listen, convinced that we already know all that could possibly be told us? That Grandmother or Grandfather, Mom or Dad, teacher or catechist, brother or friend… no flurry of wings or trumpet here, no thunder-clap or lightening, but angels all the same, messengers from God announcing to us an amazing, wonderful good news: the possibility of a new and eternal, a divine, life.
Not on Christmas Day but now, this morning, with great and tender mercy in this Word, in the figure of the just man Joseph, in the brother or sister sitting beside you, in that problem which defies solution, angels are come among us, announcing to us tidings of great joy: God is with us, a savior is born, sins are forgiven, the way home has been opened.
Comfort and joy, these tidings, here and now.
How do you answer?