And Joseph Ponders
When .Joseph awoke he did as the angel of the Lord directed him...
Matthew 1: 24.
A number of times in the Infancy narrative, Joseph is shown sleeping restfully, praying and pondering instructions from our heavenly Father. So it is not unusual, as a child may study an icon of the Nativity of our Lord, that he sees depicted the blessed foster-father in a lower corner seemingly asleep or in deep thought as an old, somewhat passive-appearing, worn-out man tries to communicate a message to him.
We immediately notice in the very center of the icon the Birthgiver of God tending to her newborn while it appears Joseph nods off in the radiant presence of the new-born Redeemer. And it certainly is not because the foster-father is tired after walking the donkey with Mary on it all the way to Bethlehem. Why is Joseph shown relaxing, at rest, pondering reality in the Nativity scene? Does the very early Christian inspired creative artistic tradition express the fact that men can feel somewhat sidelined in the birth process? Was it a precursor to the iconic figure of the nervous father handing out cigars in the hospital waiting room?
There are also theological reasons for so depicting Joseph in the feast day icon. In the very first instant consideration, the separation of Joseph from Mary and the Christ Child is seen to emphasize his distance from what actually occurred between the Mother of God and the Blessed Trinity. This "distance" is what every father experiences and feels. Though he has a part in procreation, every father knows that he did not create the soul or impart actual life to his sired child. That mystery is something solely between God and the more-knowing mother who shares her own substance with the new-born baby. The man - even with all his sharing in parenthood and without whom it is impossible - always remains `outside' the process of pregnancy and the baby's birth. In many ways he has to learn of fatherhood from the mother.
Several times from the pages of God's revelation to us in Scripture, Joseph, as we know, wakes up and does what "...a just man..." does Matthew 1: 19. He listens to the voice of God through an angel, bringing Mary and the Christ-Child to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath and then, leads them back to Nazareth. It is he who teaches the Lord his carpenter's trade, and said not a word that is recorded in the gospels. He was man of unwavering faith, prompt action, the ultimate strong type whose unbounded belief gives expression to his hope.
This is the season of hope. Whereas consumerism brings society and the individual immersed in it, anxiety and restlessness, with Christ's birth comes the gift of hope. It is what inspired Old Covenant believers to look forward to the coming of the Messiah, to trust in God's promises Today in our western world we face a dread winter in which the birth rate falls below replacement in most countries, including our own, even among us. The ultimate roots can be seen as moral and spiritual; they are linked to a disturbing deficit of faith, hope and indeed, love. To bring children into the world calls for self-centered eros to be fulfilled in a creative agape deeply rooted in generosity and marked by trust and hope in the future under the providing guidance of our God. Without God there is no hope and where He is removed from life, man suffers in dejection. A materialistic mind-set replaces hope in a real future with something else: than immediate desire for consumer goods and enhanced status more important that the position we hold in the sight of our Maker and Creator. This mindset is sadly brought home to us this time each year the coming feast seems with each passing period of time to become more of a consumer season than a genuinely Christian one.
The interpretation of Joseph separated from the actual drama of Jesus and Mary is to teach a significant lesson. Here we see Joseph not actually sleeping or resting, but being tempted by the evil one, the devil himself, to doubt the truth of Virgin Birth, to express himself in opposition to the work of redemption, to isolate himself and remain apart from God's will for the salvation of mankind.
The unfortunate reality is that the more man possesses of this world and its passing values, that is, excessive prosperity and the consumer mentality, paradoxically joined to a certain anguish and uncertainty about the future, deprives not only married couples of the generosity and courage needed for raising up new life; but life is often perceived and understood not as a blessing, but as a danger from which to defend oneself. More and more young people are coupling up and using every sort of invented excuse they can muster for not having children. They want the benefit of marriage without the bother of offspring. When a couple consciously does not want children, there is no valid marriage; there the relationship degenerates into a physical hook-up. A society with no hope in the future and a resulting lack of openness to life is, not surprisingly, a society that would trade a celebration of birth for one of obvious and eager consumption.
In contrast to the life of Joseph, the foster-father, is the purely materialistic view of our Lord's Nativity - ever more noticeably each year as recession - affected merchants desperately seek to improve their profits - can be a symptom of this same hopeless outlook on life. Only the dollar then counts.
Of curse, believers have the reminder of hope in salvation that comes with the Birth of Christ. With this Slavonic event, the process of our own redemption is made possible. Christ's birth - as the angels told the shepherds leads us to "...peace on earth to men of good will"
Matthew 2: 14.
Just like Joseph, believers have hope on earth and certainly in heaven. If we look for other gifts during this season we have only anxiety and possessions, which do nothing to decrease the restlessness in our hearts. No wonder as early as the fourth century, Augustine already observed our hearts are restless unless they rest in God. This secure rest gives the Christian hope while the consumer only has yesterday's purchase. Hope is no small matter. If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time, our lives will soon be devoid of hope itself. Our hope is based not simply on the here and now, but on the hereafter as well, not just on ourselves and our own efforts, but on the One who made us.
Joseph slept well because he hoped in God. He trusted God and He celebrated God and the birth of his only-begotten Son. H heard the message of the devil, but repudiated it by his actions and lifestyle. He protected and safeguarded the faith offered him by our heavenly Father and cooperated to make a success of the vocation of Christ among us.
How about us? Have we awakened, with Joseph, from our slumber at this time of the year? Have we followed him along the more difficult path of giving not just gifts, but ourselves? The fatherhood of Joseph is expressed concretely in his having made his entire life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission connected with it, to make a total gift of self, of his life and work.
When God calls, what is our response? God is calling us during this holy season. What is our response? Do we even hear invitation amid our daily duties and distractions? What is God's will for me at this moment, as a father, as a guardian of the truth of Christ in my family, as a husband, as a father? Do I listen to the devil and his evil suggestions or am I faithful to the
In facing these challenges, we cannot go wrong following the example of Joseph, who gave up and sacrificed whatever comfort he had to play a vital part in the drama of redemption. He knew when to lead, when to follow, when to react, when to completely trust, and when to sleep, letting God be God. All because he never lost hope!