Galatians 1:11-19; Matthew 2:13-23
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
As we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, we should acknowledge that we are probably so familiar with the Christmas story that we often imagine it happened in a world quite different from our own. We tend to make His Nativity a sentimental event that we celebrate yearly with various cultural customs before going back to life as usual. When we do so, however, we miss the point of how this great Feast challenges us to live faithfully in the very same world in which the Savior was born as a vulnerable Child.
Today we remember a crucial, and often overlooked, figure in the real life drama of Christmas: Joseph the Betrothed, an elderly relative of the Virgin Mary who reluctantly became her guardian when she had to leave the Temple where she had grown up. One of the verses chanted at vespers last night states that “a strange betrothal fell unto his lot,” and that is surely an understatement.
Betrothal was an arrangement in which a man became the guardian of a woman; it did not imply the intimate relations of marriage. As an 80 year-old widower, Joseph did not want to take on this responsibility for the teenaged Virgin Mary, but he obeyed God’s command nonetheless. That is how he came to play a key role in the salvation of our world of corruption.
The story of Joseph connects with so much of the heritage of the Old Testament. An evil ruler wanted to murder the young Savior because He viewed Him as a threat. Pharaoh had ordered the deaths of Hebrew male infants long ago in Egypt, and now a wicked king like him reigned in Israel. Herod slaughtered the young boys in and around Bethlehem when he realized that the wise men had tricked him.
In the Exodus, the Hebrews had fled Egypt on the night of the Passover. Now the young Messiah flees Israel to go to Egypt at night. Once the danger had passed, Joseph brought the family back to the Promised Land, just as the Hebrews eventually returned after wandering in the desert for forty years. Recall also the story in Genesis of another Joseph. He went to Egypt unwillingly, as a slave, but eventually saved his whole family from a famine by bringing them there.
Matthew’s gospel describes Joseph’s role in the Lord’s early life with obvious Old Testament symbolism. The point is not simply to glorify Joseph, of course, but to show how Christ fulfills God’s promise of a Savior to the Hebrews and to all people. Joseph’s story is a clear reminder that God calls people to cooperate with His gracious plans to bring salvation, blessing, and healing to the entire world. No, that world is not one of imaginary sentimental perfection, but the very same one inhabited today by those who suffer from persecution, abuse, and war. There are still many Herods among us.
The necessity of our free response to God’s calling in such a world should be obvious at Christmas. The Theotokos freely chose to say “yes” when the Archangel Gabriel visited her with the good news that she was chosen to be the Virgin Mother of the Son of God. Despite his reluctance to become her guardian in the first place, old Joseph accepted the responsibility. And then after being horrified to discover her pregnancy, he had the faith to believe the message of the angel that the Child was conceived of the Holy Spirit. Despite his advanced age, Joseph successfully guided his family to Egypt as they fled the murderous Herod. He had not anticipated involvement in such a dangerous set of circumstances in his latter years, but he did what had to be done for the safety of his family, as so many parents struggle to do today in life-threatening circumstances around the world.
The example of Joseph reminds us that God uses our cooperation to accomplish His gracious purposes in the world. That was certainly the case in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, David, and countless others responded to God’s initiative, and He worked through them, despite their many failings. The same is certainly true of the Theotokos, for through the free response of a teenaged Palestinian Jewish girl came the Messiah in Whom the ancient promises to the descendants of Abraham are fulfilled and extended to the entire world.
The details of our Lord’s conception, birth, and infancy show that God does not force people to obey Him. It is entirely possible to disregard God and refuse to live as those created in the divine image and likeness. Herod provides a shockingly clear example of where the choice to turn away from truth and goodness leads. Doing so does not simply weaken us as particular people, but also frustrates the accomplishment of God’s blessing and healing of the world. Just look at the pain and brokenness that violence, hatred, and lust for power still bring to people today. Unfortunately, Herod remains an all too familiar figure whenever the lives of the weak and innocent become inconvenient and expendable before the dominant forces of the world as we know it.
Our calling is not simply to avoid becoming like Herod, but to become as much like the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed as we possibly can. Though there is obviously a uniqueness in how she freely agreed to contain the Son of God in her womb as His Mother and Living Temple, we may all become better temples of the Holy Spirit as we welcome God’s sanctifying presence more fully into our lives. Her life plans changed at the Annunciation, and we must recognize that the healing of our souls likely will not occur according to our own preferences. That was certainly the case for old Joseph, who took on responsibilities that he did not want because He knew that was God’s calling in his life. Because this unlikely couple freely obeyed God, salvation has come to the world.
Let us celebrate Christmas by growing in our cooperation with God’s good purposes for us in the broken world we inhabit. That means rejecting the lie that we are isolated individuals who will find fulfillment in getting what we want on our own terms in any area of life. It means learning to see and serve Christ in neighbors, family members, and coworkers, in the lonely, sick, and suffering, and especially in anyone we are inclined to view as an enemy. It means turning off nonstop media and disregarding intrusive thoughts as we open our hearts to God in the stillness of the Jesus Prayer. It means undergoing a change of mind such that fulfilling our role in the salvation of the world becomes what is most important to us, even when that is difficult and we would rather be doing something else. The next time that you feel that way, remember Joseph the Betrothed, the old man who put aside his preferences in order to become a refugee with his unlikely family. Knowing how God used his faithfulness, how can we set any limits on what He will do with ours? All that we have to do is to listen and cooperate. The rest is in God’s hands.