Mass readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:
Isaiah 7.10-14 Psalm 24.1-6 Romans 1.1-7 Matthew 1.18-24
These stories that we are reading from the gospels, of the time immediately before the birth of Christ are intriguing. They don’t concern our Lord directly, but are about ordinary people who find themselves caught up in God’s great plan, and how they respond. Of course, we’re talking principally about Mary and Joseph. Now, I said “ordinary” but only in the sense of their circumstances of life: frankly, by faith they are extraordinary people.
Holy Scripture is not arbitrarily chosen, but is a library compiled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore, containing all that we need for our spiritual enlightenment. These stories of Mary and Joseph are of great importance to us despite the frustration of many who would like to have known more about Jesus and his family in Nazareth. These stories require our contemplation, our appreciation, so that we are guided into righteousness and able to make a home for Christ among us.
But in our times the forces of chaos are at work to deprive of us of the ability to appreciate and understand what these stories teach. The very language that we use, not only to express ourselves, but to form the ideas that prompt expression is being actively undermined in the name of compassion and tolerance; but these are not genuine causes, they are only meant to deceive the naïve and further the aims of those intent upon deconstructing our families and communities and replacing them according to diabolical designs that are doomed to fail with disastrous results.
Where once I could use the words man, woman and marriage without any confusion, today there is increasing need for clarification and qualification.
The story of Our Lady Mary tells us there is something more to being a woman than mere appearance: longer hair, a manner of dress, certain gestures and movement of the body that suggests the feminine; nor is it a simple biological role. Mary is more than “a person who can become pregnant”, or “a person with a womb” – these being the strange turns of phrase we see increasingly employed by government departments and educators to identify adult human females.
Rather, we see in Mary a woman emerging into womanhood and its challenges, then being asked to take on a role requiring inestimable courage and sacrifice.
Moving from girlhood to womanhood must be rather intimidating. I can only imagine. I only know about becoming a man. There is a mystery there that my imagination simply cannot penetrate, and any description of a teenaged girl’s angst that I attempt will be at best a sensitively offered approximation, based on my experience of adolescence as a male. The sexes do exist as two great solitudes, and what links us across the space between is love, but it is not a bridge that allows us to cross over to the other reality.
Mary’s role in salvation history does provide for us all a model of faith, but in its particulars, it speaks to women coming of age in a world that is intimidating, threatening. Mary by virtue of her virginal womanhood, feminine instincts and likely modest stature, is not a warrior, but rather a handmaid of the Lord.
But in no way is her dignity as a daughter of God diminished by this. This does not make her lesser in the eyes of God. Indeed, it illuminates for us her faith because it does not rest upon some silly notion of physical self-reliance. Like the, prophet, and wartime leader of Israel, Deborah (who we can read about in the Old Testament Book of Judges), Mary throughout her life shows forth courage and wisdom, and again, tremendous faith but never does she forsake her femininity and put on a faux masculine identity.
The young ladies of our parish will find no better model for themselves as they navigate their way to female adulthood, if only they can get beyond blushing at the word “virgin” and looking past the pious traditions that surround Mary to the substance that gives rise to all that the devotion.
Joseph’s role is dwelt upon at some length in today’s gospel passage; and again, what we see here are the actions of a man. Again, across the space that divides men from women, as much as there is sympathy and concern, no woman can quite grasp the pain, and indeed, rage a man knows in the apparent infidelity of a wife or a fiancée. As much as one may protest to the contrary, I cannot admit that, as with myself trying to imagine those things that give heartache to my wife and my daughter, anything more than an approximation in the intensity of feeling is possible.
So, in thinking about Joseph and his situation, we need to consider that unlike Mary who gets a rather unambiguous message through the visit of an angel; Joseph gets a dream. How insubstantial! A whispered message received on the verge of waking, and this is all he has to go on; well, that and the fact that he is a good man and he looks upon Mary with love that desires what is best for her and the child who is coming. And what is best is that he be there for them no matter what he will now sacrifice in the way of his expectations of marriage and family life. For our boys and young men, here is a man of masculine virtue.
Then they are married.
We need here to understand the biblical conception of that word, marriage. Mary and Joseph’s understanding, especially as Galilean Jews, and so rather more stringent in their living of the Jewish faith, especially in its moral demands, would have seen in their vows the making of an unbreakable covenant made with the ideal of that most holy patriarch Isaac and his celebrated wife Rebecca in mind. Marriage is the coming together of a man and a woman as the expression of the fullness of humanity, and not merely a contract between two persons for mutual aid and comfort. What Mary and Joseph entered into was not simply a pact of reciprocal support, but something done for the sake of others, for our sake. It was, I rather think, Christ working in them to reverse the catastrophe of Adam and Eve: Mary and Joseph, in chaste partnership begin the remaking of humanity because rather than fleeing from God in shame, they make ready to receive him in joy.
And they do this despite their bewilderment and their fears, all of which are overcome as they see in each other, not a mirrored image, not just another person, but rather someone who by their differences complements and helps complete what must be in place to receive Christ into humanity.
These are all preparations that conform to God’s design – the Holy Family. Again, this isn’t an arbitrary decision because we know, again from sacred scripture, that God could have placed the mother of our Lord into any number of different circumstances and still brought off the miracle of the Incarnation.
We know of the rather infamous story of Abraham expelling the serving woman Hagar from his camp, putting out into the wilderness not only her, but the son she gave him, Ishmael. If you know the story, Hagar, rejected by the only people she ever knew and so devastated that she resolves to lie down with her boy and die, but is saved by God. Ishmael grows to manhood and founds his own nation. So, God can work outside the nuclear family. Yet clearly, in what he planned for his son, we see his strong preference; we see him showing us something that is good.
As I mentioned at the start, we are seeing an active attempt to change our language and by it to affect how we view and interpret the world.
George Orwell in his celebrated novel, 1984 illustrated the idea that in manipulating and limiting language, thought itself could be constrained and shaped. Take control of language and one can alter how reality is experienced by people; and then you can change the people themselves. To draw on another great mind, that of Max Planck, physicist and father of quantum mechanics, he said,
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The powers that be are looking at is us.
And it doesn’t take long for such change to take hold of a society. Because this isn’t aimed at people like me, middle-aged and therefore more disposable; but rather our children, our youth and our young adults are the target.
In his prison diaries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was arrested and executed for his being part of the opposition to Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, observed the insidious effect of propaganda and educational indoctrination on the children of the Third Reich. It was an absolute perversion of the family dynamic that saw parents living in fear of their children who became agents of the state, violating the very sanctity of the home.
The ultimate tragedy of it all, as Bonhoeffer predicted but didn’t live to see, was that the truth would eventually reassert itself, and then an enormous burden of guilt would fall on those people who in their naïve youth did such horrible things in the service of an evil they were taught was an ultimate good. And it did, such that Germany is still a spiritually traumatized land.
So, if there was ever any question as to why we repeat this story of Mary and Joseph, the story of a brave young woman who by faith could face the future, the story of a righteous man who knew his duty to God, and also to humanity, then know that it is because these communicate truths too easily forgotten. We need to be reminded of what it is to be men and women, families and communities, faithful, fearless and defiant of the powers of this world because God is with us. He is always with us.