Voices of Trust and Faith

Today was the final gathering of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I am offering at UST Law School this year. The theme of this year’s retreat is Voices of Advent.

At the beginning of the session, participants shared the fruits of their prayer during this past week with Elizabeth and John the Baptist, the voices, respectively, of blessing and joy and of preparation. We then talked more broadly about how Elizabeth and John are models for us as we continue in our Advent preparations

I then offered a reflection about the final two voices participants will pray with as we approach the end of Advent: Mary and Joseph, the voices of trust and faith. Participants will spend this last week praying with the annunciations to Mary and Joseph, as well as some other material relating to faith and trust. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here.

I inadvertently neglected to record today’s reflection. However I have spoken in the past about both Mary and Joseph.

You can listen to a reflection focused on Mary’s response to God’s invitation to participate in his plan for salvation here (from the 2008 Advent retreat):

Joseph is one of the “Models of Advent” I talk about here (from the 2010 Advent retreat):

Annunciation Narratives

Last night was the first of a three-segment Advent program Bill Nolan (pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle parish) and I are offering at St. Thomas Apostle for parishioners of STA and Christ the King parishes.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each offer a genealogy of Jesus, an annunciation narrative and a birth narrative.

During the session last night I gave a talk on the annunciation narratives in the two Gospels: Luke’a account of the annunciation to Mary and Matthew’s account of the annunciation to Joseph. The narratives are, at one level, very different, and ont he other, quite similar. While Mary’s is the one we tend to focus on, Joseph is no less a model of faith and trusting obedience than is Mary.

Each of the narratives challenges us to reflect on our own responses to God’s invitation to us to participate in his plan of salvation.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave last evening here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 30:47. (There are two places where I had someone read Gospel excerpts; the second may be a bit soft given the distance of the reader from the recorder.) You can find the handout with questions for reflecion here. The handout also includes one of my favorite poems on the Annunciation.

Joseph: A Man of Few (Read: No) Words

Yesterday’s Gospel was St. Matthew’s account of what is sometimes referred to as the Annunciation of Joseph – the appearance to Joseph of an “angel fo the Lord,” telling him that it was through the Holy Spirit that Mary had become pregnant and that, therefore, he should not be afraid to take Mary into his home. At Mass last night, the celebrant said something I must have realized before, but had not really spent any time thinking about – that Joseph never speaks in the Gospels.

Joseph is that only “major player” in the Gospel I can think of that has no speaking parts. Not a word comes out of his mouth in any of the four Gospels. Nonetheless, we are able to form a clear picture of this “righteous man” who had such enormous faith in God. With Joseph, it is not a case of actions speaking louder than words. Rather, his actions speak volumes in the complete absence of words.

When he learns Mary is pregnant, he determines not to have her stoned to death, as was his right, but to quietly divorce her.

When the angel delivers the message of yesterday’s Gospel, Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”

When another angel told him to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod, he departed for a strange place, leaving behind all that he knew.

When the angel came and told him to return to the land of Israel, he immediately followed that instruction.

And then he raised Jesus, teaching him all that he knew.

St. Francis is quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary use words.” We have no words of Joseph. But we have actions that speak volumes about the man. A humble man of tremendous faith. He was open to hear God’s word, and when he heard it, he acted upon it.

May our actions speak as loudly.

The Holy Family

The current issue of America magazine has a piece reflecting on a painting by Janet McKenzie, The Holy Family. As the writer observes, many of the pictures of the Holy Family that we see in museums show a fair-skinned Jesus and Mary and an elderly, also fair-skinned, St. Joseph.

The McKenzie painting (which is hangs in Loyola School in NCY and which you can see a representation of here), looks nothing like so many of those depictions of the Holy Family. As the author of the America piece observes, McKenzie picture is of “a group of poor people who have the features of the African or perhaps the Mexican or Peruvian.”

It is no more likely that Jesus, Mary and Joseph looked African, Mexican or Peruvian, than northern European. Yet, as the author observes, “forcing us to recognize both similarity and difference…[compels us] to think again and to look twice…It is as if the unknown reality of those first-century peasants has been transposed into another key, one to which we can genuinely respond.”

I had a number of things I thought to say about this painting. But instead, I invite you to take a look at it yourself, and reflect on what you see there. On how it is both the same as and different from other depictions you’ve seen. On what it is that draws you to it.

Circumstantial Evidence

Circumstantial evidence is a term one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to understand. We’ve all seen enough crime dramas on television to know that people can be convicted of a crime even if there is no direct evidence that proves their guilt, where there is enough indirect evidence to allow a tried of fact to infer that the person must be guilty.

I was thinking about this in connection with Joseph after Gabriel’s visit to Mary. What must Joseph felt when the rumors of Mary’s pregnancy started flying about? What must he have thought, knowing he was not responsible for the pregnancy? What would anyone think if their spouse or fiance, with whom they had had no sexual relations turned up pregnant? And how would they react to hearing something like, “I didn’t cheat on you, honey; the Holy Spirit did this.” Yeah, sure, that’s believable. Hurt. Rage. Embarrassment. All would have been completely understandable reactions to this new.

But, among its other lessons, the story of Jesus’ conception tells us that things are not always as they appear. All the evidence may point to a conclusion, and that conclusion can still be wrong.

As I was reflecting on this, I thought that part of what Joseph teaches us is the importance of being able to reach underneath the raw emotions that circumstantial evidence of this kind generates, to find the deeper wisdom that knows that truth. Joseph was able to do that. To not be blinded by rage, hurt, disappointment and sadness, but to be able to hear the voice that revealed the truth to him. That’s an important lesson to learn.

Hidden Jesus

I’m currently reading a small book by Fr. Richard W. Gilsdorf called Go to Joseph, which offers insights into St. Joseph, about whom we are told very little in the Bible. I’ve been reading a chapter every morning as part of my morning prayer period. (This post is not about St. Joseph, by the way.)

In one chapter, Gilsdorf talks about Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. He describes Mary riding astride the donkey “like a living monstrance,” and then talks about their difficulty finding shelter in the evenings.

I was arrested by the designation of Mary as a “living monstrance.” What came to mind as I read the phrase was Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem…Jesus riding astride a donkey, with people spreading their cloaks on the ground before him, waving branches and crying out “Hosanna…Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It would be easy, wouldn’t it, to recognize Jesus if he came “as himself.” He’d be hard to miss if he appeared in all his kingly glory. That would certainly make it easy for us to recognize him and give him praise and honor.

But most of the time, Jesus comes to us hidden. Comes to us disguised in the form of a “living monstrance.” Comes to us hidden in our co-workers….the man begging on the street corner…the tired pregnant woman who can barely carry her packages…our family members. No outward sign that says “Messiah” or “God.”

Gisldorf says of people who would have passed Mary and Joseph on the road and seeing only a young man and his young pregnant wife, “Who would have dreamed that before their eyes had just passed their Messiah.” Yet, that is exactly what we are asked to do. To look at the faces of all those we come in contact with and see them as living monstrances, to see them as carrying the living Jesus within. That is challenging, but that is the challenge we as Christians are given. To see everyone as carrying Christ within, and treating them accordingly.

Joseph’s Dream

Today’s Gospel gives us Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, in which Joseph is the central character. Joseph discovers Mary is with child, and not by his doing. Because he was “a righteous man,” he was “unwilling to expose her to shame,” and thus decided to quietly divorce her. However, before he can effectuate his intent, an angel appears to him and tells him a strange tale: Mary was not an adulteress. Rather, her pregnancy was through the power of God. Thus, says the angel, take your wife into your home and raise her son with her.

How many people, hearing such a tale, would attribute it to imagination, or to a badly digested dinner interfering with our sleep? How many would have believed that Mary’s pregnancy was not the result of sin? And would have been willing to endure the snickers of the other young men in town at taking Mary into his home?

But Joseph was a man of strong faith, tremendous faith. He believed in God’s plan and so cooperates in it. He takes Mary in, and not unwillingly, but with love, allowing Jesus to be born into a family environment. He trusted God and worked to see God’s plan fulfilled. He cares for and protects Mary and the newborn Jesus, who he sees as his own son.

Generally, our attention during Advent is on Jesus and on Mary, who played such a prominent role by her yes. But Joseph is one of the unsung heroes of Advent. Joseph was a necessary part of God’s plan and cooperated with God in the task of Jesus’ incarnation and growth. He doesn’t get central billing, but he provided protection for Mary and Jesus and provided Jesus with the love, the support, the encouragement, the training necessary for Jesus to be able to begin his public ministry.

Joseph inspires us to think about the unsung heroes in our own lives. Each of us has one or more Josephs in our lives – the people who stand off to the side, who themselves never take center stage, but who provide us with the support and the encouragement we need to do all that we do. People who rarely are recognized publicly, but whose absence would throw everything off. Let today be a day to give thanks for the presence of those persons in our lives.