The Angel of Discomfort

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus (c. 1635), at ...When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Matthew 1:24)

I don’t know about you, but I have done lots of things that were commanded of me. I have done them gladly. I have done them with a simmering resentment. I have done them out of Catholic guilt and fear of punishment. I have done them with love and joy.  I have done them with little reaction or second thought.

I wonder about Joseph. He did as the angle of the Lord had commanded him, but what was he thinking or feeling. What was his reaction? I realize that the Gospel is telling a larger story, but still…. I wonder about Joseph who appears so briefly and then disappears from the Gospels.

I think we are too quick to assume Joseph just willingly, happily, and unhesitatingly does as he has been told. Look at the situation from Joseph’s perspective.  He lived and had grown up in a culture with little tolerance for a formally betrothed woman found to be with child by someone other than her intended. The strictest interpretation of the law calls for the death of the apparently adulterous Mary. Joseph is a righteous man, faithful to all the demands of the Jewish law. But Joseph seems unwilling to denounce her publicly and searches for a way out.

Why? Maybe he has some empathy for Mary’s plight? Or maybe he doesn’t want his reputation and time wrapped up in this unpleasantness?  What are Joseph’s options? Whatever he is thinking, one thing is true: Mary’s pregnancy cannot long be hidden.  And so he plans to quietly divorce her … that is until an angel of the Lord came in a dream.

I wonder if Joseph, in the middle of the dream, responds to the angel, “Hey, I am looking for a way out of this, not to be drawn deeper into the problem!”  I mean, what happened to the image of our guardian angel as protector or source of solace? But who said this was our guardian angel? This is the angel of the Lord. This is the angel who comes with the Word from God to call us where God would have us go, not necessarily where we want to go. Many a prophet has met this angel. And sometimes there is no solace, no comfort. Sometimes it is the Angel of Discomfort.

“Joseph… do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”  This discomforting plan preserves Mary’s honor but publicly this shifts the shame to him as he should have known better than to transgress the boundary separating betrothal and marriage. In any case, Mary and Joseph are soon parents as the child Jesus was born. As parents they taught Jesus, and as it says at the end of Luke 2: “Jesus progressed in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”  Jesus grew, advanced, matured in wisdom and age.

And years later it is perhaps the Angel of Discomfort who is besides Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane urging Jesus to follow the plan that preserves our honor at the price of his own, that ensures our redemption at the cost of his life.  A life in which Jesus came to know our temptations, our joys and sorrows, to know the cauldron of  daily life, knowing us in a way that is better than we know ourselves.

Jesus rises from the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, fulfills the command of God, and chooses us as the center of attention, of love, of his life…. And of his death.

I wondered where Jesus learned to choose such obedience of faith?  Maybe he simply learned from his parents in those quiet, intuitive ways we all learn. He had a good teacher in Joseph who mirrors the divine empathy. Joseph exemplifies what their son Jesus will later teach his followers: one must go far beyond what the law requires in order to fulfill it truly.  Joseph does not just tolerate his situation regarding Mary, but enters into and joins his life to Mary, her passion, her suffering, her life.

In order for Joseph to accept his obedience, his focus had to shift away from concern about his own righteousness and reputation and turn with greater empathy toward Mary. Only when he can make her the center of his attention, allowing himself to feel her distress/uncertainty, can he make the divinely directed choice that will uphold her honor at the price of his own.  Jesus follows the example of his earthly father – even as Jesus fulfills the Divine Plan for all humanity.

Where and when has the Angel of Discomfort whispered in your dream? Calling you to turn your attention to others?  Allowing them to be the center, to feel their uncertainty, their pain, and ultimately their joy?

I don’t know about you, but I have done lots of things that were commanded of me. I have done them gladly. I have done them with a simmering resentment. I have done them out of fear of punishment. I have done them with love and joy.  I have done them with little reaction or second thought.

These days I try to let myself be drawn into the lives of others – to be like Joseph. To follow where God would have been go. To do what God would have me do. I do find more often I discover love and joy along the way.

And maybe , like Joseph, I too will soon disappear from the story. But I will have done what was mine to do.

When the Angel of Discomfort next beckons us… With the grace of God, may we all do what is ours to do.

1 thought on “The Angel of Discomfort

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