My homily for 4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent (c) 2016

‘Mary’s husband Joseph, being a man of honour…decided to divorce her informally.’ Taken out of context, this is shocking news: but, if you see the story from Joseph’s point of view it’s understandable.

I want to tell the story from Joseph’s point of view. Scripture only gives us the bare outline, in other words it tells us hardly anything about Joseph and how he felt and what he said to Mary. And because Scripture tells us so little I want to use my imagination to speculate what might have happened. It’s a bit like telling a story.

Imagine the day Joseph made this decision, it started off, I suspect, like a normal day in Joseph’s life, except he is excited about getting married to Mary so that they can live together. He loves her and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He is so happy, he dreams of their life together, of their children, what they will be like. But then disaster strikes and his life is turned upside down. It begins when he sees Mary looking very serious, this is not like her. He asks her what’s the matter. She looks at him, in a way that she has never looked at him before, and Joseph instinctively knows something has changed in Mary. He waits for her to speak, but poor Mary, where does she begin? She must have agonized about what she was going to say, and would he believe her.

She asks him to sit down, that she has something very important she wants to tell him. Well, she says, you are not going to believe this, and I have no way of explaining what happened simply, what I am going to say won’t make sense to you, but I want you to believe me. At which point, you can imagine how confused Joseph felt. Mary told him, “I had a strange and wonderful experience. An angel of the Lord appeared to me, he said his name was Gabriel, and told me all sorts of wonderful things: how I was blessed by God, how I was specially chosen, and then he told me I was to conceive and bear a son, and that I must name him Jesus, and he will be son of the Most High.” She paused, looking for a reaction in Joseph’s face, but he was by now looking at the ground, she knew he didn’t understand a word she was saying. Then she added, just so that he would at least understand one simple point, “I’m pregnant.”

We don’t know what Joseph said in reply, but we do know for certain that he wanted to divorce her, ‘Joseph being a man of honour, the Gospel tells us, decided to divorce her informally.’ We don’t know what he said to Mary but we can imagine at the very least he asked: “how can you be so sure?” “How do you know you weren’t dreaming?” “Could it be that you imagined all this?” “How do you know it was the angel of the Lord?” We will never know what Mary said, but we do know that in spite of her insistence that it really happened as she said, Joseph did not believe her.

It must have been the saddest moment of his life. He loves Mary and wants desperately to believe her, but things like this don’t happen in the real world. And so, he is left with no other choice but to divorce her. And with that in his mind he walks out of her house and, as he then thought, out of her life forever.

But all is not lost, we know that Joseph changed his mind; it was a miracle, divine intervention. We are told that ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.’ And basically tells him to believe Mary, that all she said was true, ‘Joseph…do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.’ We cannot even begin to imagine how Joseph must have felt now; how he couldn’t wait to see Mary to tell her it was alright; that he believed her, because he too had seen an angel and the angel confirmed everything she had said.

Joseph, the central character of the gospel today, in some way represents us all. He is slow to believe; someone who wants to believe but can’t. Joseph wasn’t convinced until God intervened in a miraculous way.

We are so familiar with the Christmas story that we can be forgiven for taking it all for granted: Angel of the Lord appears to Mary, she conceives by the Holy Spirit, Mary says ‘thy will be done’, gives birth to Jesus, the son of God.’ Simple, where is the problem?

However, now and again, it is good to be reminded that it wasn’t so simple. The story of Christmas is a story for everyone: adults as well as children. It is a story about God and us, and therefore it is both ordinary and extraordinary, normal and abnornal. Do we believe it? Or are we like Joseph, sceptical? These things don’t happen in the real world? The Gospel tells us they do. And if we believe this, then we will really have understood the message of Christmas. Like Joseph and Mary, we shall be over the moon with joy and thanksgiving. It is a message of hope like no other.

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