I give myself about a B+ for this one, but one can never tell what people will find profitable. So here’s the homily …
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child is conceived in her (Mt 1:21)
These words from today’s Gospel are striking. Joseph, the chosen husband of Mary, requires the consolation of an angel because he was afraid. But what did exactly he fear?
I used to think it was pretty obvious. Mary turns up pregnant. Joseph, who’s described as a “righteous man,” is afraid to violate the Law of Moses by ignoring her adultery. Either that, or he’s afraid that he can no longer trust Mary, that he would be introducing a disgraced woman into his home. So, decides to divorce her “quietly.” On this reading, the angel would be relieving Joseph’s fears primarily by conveying essential information. Since “it is through the Holy Spirit that this child is conceived in her,” Mary is no adulteress. Case closed.
But I have a hunch that Joseph’s fear went deeper than this. I first began to suspect this when I was introduced to the Eastern Orthodox Icons of the Nativity. In almost all these icons, we find the Virgin Mary and the Christ child together at the very center of the painting. But Joseph sits at the bottom left corner of the icon, quite apart from his wife and child, looking anxious and perplexed. A hunched figure, representing the devil, visits Joseph and brings fresh doubts and fears to his mind. Through this icon—whose basic features have been fairly fixed for centuries—the Orthodox Church has been meditating on a Joseph whose fears persisted long after the angel’s message, whose hesitancy lay deep, deep, deep in his core, whose anxiety could not be cleared up by the mere fact of Mary’s virginity.
What was this deeper fear? I can’t say for sure, of course, but I can only imagine that Joseph feared the very greatness to which he had been called. He felt his unworthiness quite sharply. One can only imagine the field day the devil could have had with someone in Joseph’s position. Temptations to doubt the message: “Aren’t you suffering from delusions of grandeur?” Temptations to believe it and despair: “How can you, a sinner, be a worthy to raise the Messiah?” “Isn’t God really asking too much?” “If you let God close, won’t He keep taking away the things that make you happy?” There must have been a thousand reasons to fear, a thousand tempting rationalizations, a thousand ways for Joseph to avoid facing squarely the greatness of his calling.
But aren’t these the classic temptations for thoughtful Christians in every age? I say “thoughtful”, because pangs of unworthiness don’t tend to afflict thoughtless people. But for those who meditate on the faith, who try to let the mysteries sink into their hearts, is it any less intimidating to consider that, somehow, our marriages are called to mirror Christ’s love for His Church? To ponder that, in giving us children, God entrusts us with immortal souls, so precious in his eyes? To imagine that here, in just a few minutes, God will come as close to us in the Eucharist as he did to Mary and Joseph at Nazareth? Yet our faith teaches all these things.
This is surely one of the reasons St. Matthew takes the trouble to record the words of the angel. If we understand them to be addressing Joseph’s deeper fear, then they become a source of hope for us today: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child is conceived in her.” God is not just clearing Mary’s name. He is giving Joseph a mission–and promising him the prayers of Mary, the strength of His only Son, and the consolation of His Holy Spirit along with it. And God promises the same for us. He doesn’t promise that we will stop feeling unworthy, or that the mission will stop being difficult. But He does promise that he will send His Son to be our worthiness, and His Spirit to be our strength.
That is why, when—in just a few minutes—God becomes present to us in the Eucharist, we will find it right to respond in two ways: First, we will kneel before Him in holy fear and profess, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” Second, we will nevertheless approach him with great confidence, knowing that the Lord has only to “say the word” and we “shall be healed”. In this way we learn to receive our Lord with the heart of St. Joseph.