Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

St Joseph: Advent IV
December 22, 2013, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday 22nd December 2013 (also on the Parish website)

holy familyOn this fourth Sunday of Advent our thoughts are directed towards Our Lady; but today’s Gospel, in this year of Matthew, focuses more on the role of St Joseph. Last Sunday we heard about the doubts of John the Baptist in prison; today we share the puzzlement of St Joseph. But notice how Matthew tells the story: before Mary and Joseph lived together, she was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Not just found to be with child, but from the Holy Spirit. Matthew doesn’t want his readers to be in any doubt about that. But what about Joseph? When the angel comes to encourage him, he says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Why should Joseph be afraid? Does the angel mean, “Do not be afraid because the child is from the Holy Spirit”? Is Joseph’s fear perhaps the fear that comes when one realises that God is at work- rather as when Peter said “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinner,” after the miraculous catch of fish?

I love St Joseph. He is a special role-model for husbands, a sort of Prince Philip figure, always there to support his wife, but always aware that he is the secondary figure. St Joseph is the antidote to a mistaken understanding of St Paul’s teaching on headship. He shows the true meaning of St Paul’s words: husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the Church, who gave himself up for her. Joseph put aside his own ambitions and hopes, in order to support Mary and the Child she was to bear.

In the scheme of salvation, Mary has a more central role than Joseph, a role second only to that of her Son himself. She is the new Eve, as he is the new Adam. Joseph’s role is to guard and protect them in their most vulnerable years: in God’s providence, once Jesus had come of age we hear no more of Joseph. It is presumed that he died, comforted to the end by the presence of Mary and Jesus. Mary’s role continued, standing in the end beside the Cross, now accompanied by the beloved disciple, and at her Son’s command extending her motherly care to all disciples.

But let us go back to today’s Gospel. Joseph’s headship within the Holy Family is implied in the commission to name the Child: “You are to name him Jesus.” Giving a name to the new-born belongs to the head of the family. The name “Jesus” means “God saves”.  Jesus is the Saviour, that is his life’s mission. But Matthew goes on to say that all this fulfils the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Emmanuel is the Hebrew for “God-with-us”. The name Jesus tells us what he does: he saves. The name Emmanuel tells us what he is: God with us. The Child that Mary is to bear, and which Joseph is to protect, is God himself, God making himself small and weak and vulnerable, so as to save the weak and vulnerable.

And so we come back to Mary. Her glory is that of being the mother of the Saviour, the mother of God. When God willed to “humanise” himself, he did not just magic up a human body out of nothing: he took flesh of a woman, a young woman whom he had prepared from her own conception to be his mother. Mary was set apart by God for a unique vocation: no wonder Joseph felt fear when he understood the responsibility being laid on him! Mary was necessary for God’s plan; Joseph was, in a sense, optional- though in his own way also necessary. He was not needed biologically, but he was needed to provide God with- how shall I put it? a “normal” family life.

Joseph is a role-model for all husbands and fathers. How so, if the circumstances of his vocation were unique? But remember: we are all made in the image of God. If Christ born of Mary is the supreme and original Image of God, every human being, born of any woman, is an image of that Image. Every mother gives birth to someone who is intended and called by God to become Christ-like, to someone who is, as we all are, a child of God.

That means that every husband and father is called to be a Joseph, to cherish, protect and guide the mother and her children. How many men fail to understand, let alone live up to, that responsibility! In Christian marriage, the primary purpose of which (as the Prayer Book tells us) is the care of children, the spouses pledge their faith “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, till death.” By God’s grace, and strengthened by God’s Spirit, Joseph fulfilled his task.

May all Christian husbands and fathers do the same!


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