Sunday after Nativity 2008
It’s almost hard to imagine that it was just a mere three days ago we were celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world who consented to be born of the flesh for the salvation of our souls. At the same time, all of us celebrated the secular holiday, and busied ourselves with all sorts of activities and family events, big dinner parties filled with family and friends, opening presents, singing carols, thing that have are all associated with the day. While the secular calendar says the holiday is over, and the radio stations have consented to playing regular music again instead of bombarding us non stop with the same 15 annoying songs, the church calendar says we have only just begun, for we gather again this morning as family in Christ to continue our celebration of the Lord’s Nativity. This is one of the joys celebrating holy days in the Orthodox Church; holy days such as this are so important, they cannot be adequately celebrated in only one day. The feast of the Nativity has an afterfeast of several days, with the final day of celebration on December 31. While the 25th is the focal point of the celebration, there are different people commemorated each day during the afterfeast. On Friday, we celebrated the Synaxis of the Mother of God, who played a crucial role in salvation history by agreeing to carry the child Jesus in her womb. Last evening, we commemorated St. Stephen, a deacon and servant of the church, and was the first martyr, giving his life for Christ in the early church. Today, we commemorate St. Joseph, the spouse of the Mother of God, his son James, from an earlier marriage, and King David, of whose lineage Joseph hails, fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would be born from the house of David.
The focal point of today’s celebration is that of St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, and the role model for husbands and fathers. By tradition, St. Joseph was an older man, having grown children from an earlier marriage, and is so depicted on icons and in statues that represent him. We also know that when you read through the entire Bible, there is not one single word attributed to St. Joseph – while I am certain that he was able to speak, there is not one recorded word uttered by him in all of Sacred Scripture.
By trade, St. Joseph was a carpenter, and had trained the young Jesus in working in his craft. When Jesus began his public ministry, he was also known as a carpenter, for he followed in the family trade growing up. As we read through the sermons of Jesus, there are many references to things that a carpenter would think about. For example, Jesus spoke about the "narrow gate" that we have to go through. You can imagine Him thinking about various gates that He had made along with His foster father, St. Joseph. He talked about building a house "upon the rock" and not "upon the sand", another concept that a good 1st century carpenter would have known about. In a beautiful passage, in Matthew 11:29, Jesus said that His "yoke" was easy. Based on His carpentry skills, He could make a yoke that was comfortable for the animals. In Matthew 21:33, He talked about building a tower in a vineyard. In another place, He told the parable of a king who was going to build a tower but did not count the cost. And you can just see the mind of a carpenter working there. You have to know the expenses before you begin a project such as that. Jesus spoke about the chief "cornerstone." And in Matthew 13:55, He is referred to as "the son of a carpenter."
St. Joseph was an obedient servant of God, who did as instructed and acted on faith that God would provide everything he needed. He could have easily divorced Mary quietly when he learned she was with child, but was assured by another angel of the Lord that this child was of Holy offspring. Rather, St. Joseph, being an obedient and a faithful man, lived up to his responsibilities as a husband and father, and provided for them by making a home for them, and keeping them from danger.
St. Joseph didn’t live long enough to ever see Jesus involved in His true ministry as the Messiah, the Son of God. St. Joseph had been dead for some time, and by tradition, he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary. There isn’t much else we know about him, except to say that by faith, Joseph knew that if God lead him to it, God would also see him through it. I can’t think of a better testimony of faith than that, and I think it is an appropriate motto for all of us as we make our pilgrimage through life as Disciples of Christ.
Our Gospel reading today picks up where the Gospel read on the feast of the Nativity stopped, where the Magi had brought gifts to the newborn Jesus. Have you ever stopped to think about how the secular tradition of gift giving became so popular? I was looking at some online sites, and came across a site called “howstuffworks.com” and found some interesting reading. For example, you probably didn’t know that back in 1867, Macy's department store in New York City began staying open until midnight Christmas Eve. Seven years later they had special window displays for Christmas. In the span of 140 years, gift giving is now a multi-billion dollar business, despite the poor economy we are suffering through this year. While the Magi brought gifts to Jesus, it is actually Macy's we must either give credit to or blame for our holiday giving.
The gifts the Wise men brought to Jesus were likely used by Joseph to help pay for his family's trip to Egypt, made necessary by the fear that King Herod had, suspecting that Jesus may be a rival for his kingly throne. His fear and paranoia were so strong that when he could not locate Jesus he had all the boys in the region who were two or younger put to death in the hopes he would somehow destroy the One the visitors from the East had come to worship. In all, some 14,000 young boys were slain because of King Herod’s paranoia; its mind boggling to think that the equivalent of the population of Freehold boro was wiped out because of the perceived jealousy King Herod had for one particular young child that the wise men told him about. Such circumstances can dampen the sense of holiday festivity that we otherwise share this time of year.
Sadly, the secular season of our Lord’s Nativity isn't easy for many people. This season of the year brings emotional difficulty to many who have lost loved ones or who are out-of-work. Even though my mom died two years ago this month, I still have a hurt in my heart that simply doesn’t go away. For many people, the sadness of this holiday season creates hardships for those who spend more than they can afford, or drink more than they should. Add to that all of those families that, whether spiritually or secularly, weren’t able to properly celebrate because they had relatives in the hospital or at home on hospice who were dying, and the entire season of preparation just passed them by. Counselors and therapists will tell you that there is usually an increased demand for their services after Christmas. The need to want to talk to someone comes from those whose expectations were not met. In severe cases it even leads some to suicide.
One has to wonder what must have been going on in Mary and Joseph's minds. First there was the unexpected pregnancy that shattered their hopes for a normal wedding. Then they had to travel to a distant town where Jesus was born in a cave. It was not the beginning of marriage and family they desired. Almost before they could recover there was another dream and they had to move again, only this time to a foreign country in order to preserve their baby's life.
Christmas and the One whose day it is have a way of calling us to new territory. It is an annual reminder of how much God loves us and how God calls us to love others. Like Mary, Joseph and Jesus we sometimes find ourselves needing to go to places we do not desire to visit. We find ourselves being called to do things we don't want to do. Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation we weren’t expecting. This is where we can imitate the faithfulness of St. Joseph, who, by faith, provided for his family, knowing that God is with him. So too, God is with us. He watches over us and protects us. This is what we sing during the Compline service we celebrate on Christmas Eve. Following each verse it is sung, in total 20 times, “God is with us, give ear all you nations, be humbled for God is with us.” No matter what happens in our lives, God is with us. Through all of the good times and the bad, God is with us. Through all of our illnesses and during our time of good health, God is with us. During the times we prosper, as well as the times we have difficulty, God is with us. At the beginning of our lives, and at the end, God is with us. The Lord places us where He wants us to be, so we can help, comfort and support each other, for God is with us.
My brothers and sisters, if ever there was a timely message to share with you, this is it. We are in some dark times as a nation, and none of us know how much worse things will get before they get better, but by faith, no matter what else happens, no matter if the market tanks again, no matter if we take more of a bath in our 401K, things will get better. The simple reason is this: God is with us. Keep repeating these words, as often as necessary, as a prescription for coping with all of the madness going on in this world. And remember the faithfulness that St. Joseph had, knowing that if God brought him to it, God would see him through it. Let these words be our own battle cry as we carry on as His Disciples.