When I was younger, I liked complicated and messy – especially things that were puzzles to explore, solve, unravel, and provided creative moments in which new, imaginative solutions might emerge. But alas, I am no longer as young as I once was. I feel a part within me that longs for quiet, uncomplicated, resolved, still interesting, but not so messy and complicated as before.
The backdrop of the first reading is that King Ahaz of Judah is considering joining a coalition of other countries in a mutual defense pact in the face of the Assyrian menace. A rather complicate and messy choice I would imagine. The Prophet Isaiah counsels Ahaz to trust in God rather than foreign allies and tells him to ask for a sign that he would know God is with him. Ahaz refuses, offering up the excuse that he will not test God. Isaiah replies that Ahaz will have a sign whether he asks for it or not, and the sign will be the birth of a child, and the child’s mother will call it Immanuel, meaning “God-with-us.” Now the choice facing Ahaz is even more complicated. (By the way, Ahaz turned away from the God of Israel seeking complicated and messy in other religions; religions that led him to sacrifice one of his sons and to defile the sanctuary of the Temple that upon his death it took 16 days to cleanse and undo his evil. Because of his wickedness he was not buried in the sepulchre of the kings.) Seems that even Jesus’ genealogy is complicated and messy.
The gospel offers us a counterpoint to Ahaz – Joseph the husband of Mary and father to Jesus, the Immanuel, “God with us.”
The Gospel describes Joseph as a “righteous man,” which is to say, a man devoted to God, and concerned with moral, ethical living. While John the Baptist was also righteous, he was flamboyant, pressed the edges, and made himself heard. In our Advent readings, Joseph is not those things. I imagine Joseph does not like to make waves, call attention to himself, or brush up against controversy. He’s honest and hardworking. He follows the rules. He practices justice and fairness, and all he wants in exchange is a “normal,” uncomplicated life. Is that too much to ask?
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me. In reading and reflecting upon the Gospel I found a new affinity with Joseph. It made we wonder and consider this largely silent figure of Scripture. Right at the moment he wants simple and peaceful, like Ahaz, he too gets sign not asked-for and is brought to a moment of choice – of the obedience of faith St Paul describes in the second reading. And his sign is complicated and messy. His fiancée is pregnant, he knows for sure that he is not the father, and suddenly, he has no good options to choose from. If he calls attention to Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she might be stoned to death. If he divorces her quietly, she’ll be reduced to begging or prostitution to support herself and the child. If, on the other hand, he marries her, her son will be Joseph’s heir, instead of his own biological child. The rumors of all this will forever be whispered … and what about Mary’s account to him – that the child is Immanuel – “God with us!”
In choosing Joseph to be Jesus’s earthly father, God led a “righteous” man with an impeccable reputation straight into doubt, shame, scandal, and controversy. God’s call required Joseph to reorder everything he thought he knew about fairness, justice, goodness, and purity. It required him to become the talk of the town — and not in a good way. It required him to embrace a mess he had not created. To love a woman whose story he didn’t understand, to protect a baby he didn’t father, to accept an heir who was not his son.
In other words, God’s messy plan of salvation required Joseph — a quiet, cautious, status quo kind of guy — to choose precisely what he feared and dreaded most. The fraught, the complicated, the suspicious, and the inexplicable. So much for living a well-ordered life. And yet, he has a willingness to lean into the impossible, to embrace the scandalous, to abandon his own notions of holiness in favor of God’s messy plan of salvation, that allows the miracle of Christmas to unfold.
No wonder that the angel Gabriel’s first words to Joseph were, “Do not be afraid.” If we want to enter into God’s messy story, then perhaps these are the first words we need to hear, too. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid when God’s work in your life looks alarmingly different than you thought it would. Do not be afraid when God upends your cherished assumptions about holiness and faith. Do not be afraid when God asks you to stand alongside the scandalous, the defiled, the suspected, and the shamed. Do not be afraid when God asks you to love something or someone more than your own spotless reputation. Do not be afraid of the precarious, the fragile, the vulnerable, the impossible.
Do not be afraid of the mess. The mess is the place where God is born.
Joseph, silent as he is, inspires me. He gives me hope. Hope that even though I want quiet and peace, perhaps I too can summons up enough holy courage, be not afraid, accept the complications, the randomness, and the chaos of God’s call.
And what I will accept is not a puzzle to be solved, but a salvation and grace to be received gratefully and to watch God’s imaginative redemption be accomplished.