Obedience in Unanticipated Circumstances: Homily for the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

 

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 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 each year of 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 for Joseph states that “a strange betrothal fell unto his lot.” Joseph certainly thought so. This betrothal was an arrangement in which a man became the guardian of a woman without 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 in unanticipated ways to cooperate with His gracious purposes for bringing salvation to the world.  He does not call us to serve Him in a realm of imaginary perfection or according to our own preferences any more than Joseph did, but in the same world with pregnant women and 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. We cannot tell that story properly without celebrating the Theotokos, who 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, famous, and powerful. Just look at the pain and brokenness that violence, hatred, and lust for revenge and domination 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 or schedules.   That was certainly the case for Joseph, who took on unanticipated responsibilities because He accepted them as God’s will for him.  Through the free 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.

We also remember today James, the son of the widower Joseph, known as “the Brother of the Lord.”  James wrote in his epistle, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good conduct, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (Jas. 3:13) He also famously taught that faith without works is dead.  (Jas. 2:17) In order to bear witness to the good news that the Son of God has become truly one of us, we must freely pursue the vocation of becoming like Him in holiness as we grow in our participation in His divine life. Our fundamental vocation remains the same:  to undergo a change of mind such that we offer ourselves without reservation in obedience to God.  As with the Theotokos, Joseph the Betrothed, and James, there is no telling what that will mean for the course of our lives, but saying “yes” in free obedience as we take the steps we have the strength to take today remains the only way to participate personally in the healing of the human person made possible by the birth of Jesus Christ.   Let us look to those we commemorate today as brilliant examples of how to do precisely that.

 

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