Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Acts 6:8-7:5, 47-60; Matthew 2:13-23
As we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, we must resist the temptation to think that we have heard the story so many times that we no longer really have to pay attention. Like the other great feasts of the Church, the Nativity provides us with an invitation each year to enter more fully in to the mystery of our salvation. The miracle of the Word becoming flesh does not change, but we must change in order to welcome Christ into the temple of our hearts more fully throughout our lives.
We live in a culture which associates Christmas with the joy of children anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus and opening their gifts with great excitement. Our culture also prizes youth and encourages us to think that we should be ashamed of gray hair, wrinkles, and other perfectly normal aspects of aging. Today the Church calls us to mature in our understanding of the Lord’s Nativity by commemorating 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 states that “a strange betrothal fell unto his lot.” Joseph certainly thought so. 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, he was reluctant to take on this responsibility for a teenaged girl, but he obeyed God’s command nonetheless. He played an essential, but often overlooked, role in how salvation came into the world.
The story of Joseph resonates 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 Jerusalem. 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.
These connections are surely not accidental, for Matthew’s gospel describes Joseph’s role in the Lord’s early life with obvious Old Testament symbolism. Joseph’s story is a challenging reminder that God calls us, even in the later stages of our lives, to cooperate with His gracious purposes for bringing salvation to the world. We do not serve Him in a realm of imaginary perfection any more than Joseph did, but in the same world with children whose lives are in danger of deadly violence and with families who must flee for their lives as refugees. There are still many rulers and regimes every bit as vicious as Herod today.
The story of Christmas also magnifies the importance of our free response to God’s calling. 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, Joseph accepted the responsibility. 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 certainly not anticipated or desired involvement in such a dangerous set of circumstances, but he accepted the calling to do what had to be done for the safety of the Theotokos and her Child.
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. And 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. We can disregard God and refuse to live as those created in the divine image and likeness. It is tragically possible to become like Herod in moral depravity and spiritual blindness to the point of disregarding even the basic humanity of innocent children and ruthlessly destroying anyone who stands in the way of getting what we want. Such corruption is a possibility for anyone, not only for the rich and famous. Just look at the pain and brokenness that violence, hatred, and lust for dominance bring to people in all walks of life today.
Our vocation is not simply to avoid becoming as wicked as Herod, but to become like the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed. Her life plans changed at the Annunciation, and we must accept that the healing of our souls will likely not occur according to our own preferences. That was certainly the case for Joseph, who took on unanticipated responsibilities because He knew that was God’s will for him. Through the obedience of this unlikely couple in their respective callings, the Savior came into the world.
Such obedience is a form of martyrdom in the sense of dying to self-centered desire out of faithfulness to the Lord. Today we also commemorate Saint Stephen the Protomartyr, the first to make the ultimate witness for Christ and to receive the crown of a Kingdom not of this world. The crowns of the martyrs are completely different from those of earthly rulers like Herod. They are not trophies to the idolatry of power-hungry people, but signs that persons have becoming living icons of the Savior’s victory over the grave and of all the corruption fueled by the fear of death. They are worn by people who have offered themselves to Christ without reservation and who sought first His Kingdom with every ounce of their being.
God does not call everyone to the martyrdom of shedding their own blood, but He does call us all to bear witness to the good news that we celebrate at Christmas. The Word has become flesh. The Son of God has become truly one of us. We must, then, become like Him in holiness as we grow in our participation in His divine life from the depths of our hearts. Regardless of age, sex, or any other characteristic, our fundamental vocation is the same: to undergo a change of mind such that we come to offer ourselves without reservation to fulfil our unique calling for the salvation of the world. May this year’s celebration of the Nativity mark a new commitment on our part to discern how Christ is calling us to bear witness to His healing of the human person in the divine likeness. As with the Theotokos, Joseph the Betrothed, and Stephen the Protomartyr, there is no telling what that will mean for the course of our lives, but it is surely the only way to enter into the mystery of our salvation in this holy season.