How often have you asked God to give you a sign? When we reflect on that question, it probably happens more often than we might initially think. God, what am I supposed to do with my life? Lord is this the person I’m meant to be with? Should I go there and do this? Jesus, give me a sign that you love me (this one is usually followed with a suggestion on how He might do that). It’s understandable. We’re told that God loves us. That He answers every one of our prayers. So in a way, we admit that maybe we’re a little dense. Perhaps we might have missed that answer or not clearly understood His plan when things aren’t going the way we think they should. So we want some clarity, some understanding, some reason brought into whatever situation it is we find ourselves in that causes us to pray in this way: Where we look for more clues, more evidence of God’s presence, His activity in our lives. We ask for a sign.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT- December 18, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
Because we’ve heard or seen so many variations of the Christmas story over the years, that different details and aspects of it are so familiar that other areas can kind of get overlooked. We know that both Mary and Joseph had an angel tell them and explain to them how Mary was going to become the mother of Jesus even though Mary and Joseph had been betrothed but not had relations with one another. But there’s a detail about this that kind of fascinates me:
Mary had an angelic visitor greeting her one day in her home in Nazareth. She has this dialogue with the angel and a further confirmation of this wondrous news with the incredible and miraculous news that her elderly relative Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist.
Joseph has an angelic visitor too, but the angel comes to him in a dream… and the angel comes not to announce glad tidings to him as the angel does for Mary. The angel comes in response to Joseph’s being in a difficult spot. He’s at a loss, perhaps sad, confused, angry even, or most likely feeling unworthy… Matthew told us that Joseph knew that Mary was “found with child through the Holy Spirit.” There’s no reason to believe that Joseph didn’t believe that. He loved Mary and already knew how beautiful she was, interiorly, as she was “full of grace” as the Angel observed even before she was pregnant with Jesus. So the theory that some propose that Joseph didn’t believe her and was suspicious says more about the world in which we live than as a viable theory for Joseph. That Joseph doubted himself and was scared about what to do next makes sense. Because after Mary experiences her encounter and agrees to what the Lord was inviting her into, we know that she goes and tells Joseph. And then the scriptures kind of just matter-of-fact tell us that Joseph was planning on divorcing her quietly. But the more you reflect on it and dig into this, you realize that Joseph must have been filled with self-doubt and unworthiness. Because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but not living together. In ancient Judaism, betrothal was more than just what we would understand as engagement. Betrothal was the time when the couple was already legally married but before they lived together. It was a sacred time of transition. To put it delicate, it would be the time between the marriage vows were exchanged at Church but before the Wedding night. From the betrothal on, they could only be separated by death or divorce (which wasn’t very accepted in ancient times).
So Mary tells her betrothed, Joseph, of her encounter with the Angel Gabriel. How she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, how this Child was to be Jesus, and what his birth would mean for humanity. And we read Joseph her husband since he was a righteous man yet unwilling to expose her to shame decided to divorce her quietly. That one sentence says a lot. Joseph is identified as a righteous man. Learning that he would not be the biological father of the child his wife was carrying is something that ordinarily would bring shame to him, and to his family. Had he been simply self-focused and suspected this was a bizarre lie, he could have demanded that his righteousness be protected. He could have divorced her publically, not even entered into the debate about this story that Mary was presented to him. But that’s not what happens. Joseph not believing he was even worthy to be Mary’s husband at this point and wanting in a sense to free her of being attached to him, doesn’t know what to do. It’s not good. Divorce is not a good answer – but Joseph doesn’t know what else to do. As much as Joseph loves Mary, he thinks this is the only viable plan. Being a righteous man, he would’ve prayed to God for guidance, looking for some sign that he was correct.
This is what we heard in today’s Gospel, which is a favorite part of the Christmas story for me. God was unwilling to let Joseph move on through life with him believing lies about himself of somehow being unworthy. God the Father sends an angel to Joseph in his sleep. In Joseph’s dreams, God the Father invites Joseph to let go of self-doubt, to reject the voices of the devil speaking words of fear, and instead to dream His dream. Dream His dream of being a father to His Son Jesus. Not just in a spiritual but a real way. Dream His dream of taking this most favored daughter of His, Mary, full of Grace as Joseph’s wife into his home, truly as his to love, honor, cherish, and protect all the days of his life. Dream His dream for Joseph with even more urgent tasks now that this child is to be born He has even bigger dreams than anything Joseph ever had imagined for himself, his wife, and his family before these miraculous interventions.
St. Joseph has taught me a few beautiful lessons with this – that have helped shape my understanding of God and I think is really important for each of us when we have our moments of asking for a sign.
First is that we have to be open to how the Lord wants to speak to us. Just because your betrothed gets an angel popping by the house one afternoon, doesn’t mean that’s how God is going to “visit” you. And that’s a good thing. For me, while there are times I think I want that type of unambiguous, awesome, definitive direction from the Lord – there’s probably a reason why God doesn’t speak to me that way (probably a couple of good reasons). But for us, we always have to remember that God the Father, He who made us, who knows us so intimately that scripture tells us he knows the exact numbers of hairs on our heads (and for some of us how that number decreases with each passing day) -He knows how best to speak to us. So I can’t let jealousy or envy that God speaks and works differently in one person’s life compared to mine enter in. Because if I do that, more likely I’m going to miss how God is speaking to me.
The second thing is to trust God. Trust His plan. Remember that He has the 50,000-foot view of things (actually a bit higher than that). His providence is at work in amazing ways. Just consider this: it’s not a coincidence that there are two Josephs that are notable in scripture. That the one in Genesis (who’s famous thanks to a certain musical for his amazing technicolor Dreamcoat, you might remember), who was a son of Jacob, was known as gifted by God with the ability to interpret dreams that were prophetic in nature and would be a central character in the early chapters of the salvation history in how God would save his people from sin and death. At that point in a particular way Joseph saved his biological and extended family from famine having become Prime Minister in Egypt which would have been impossible for a Hebrew slave without God’s divine assistance making it so. Well think about the fact that St. Joseph, was the son of another man named Jacob, would in his dreams be blessed with angelic visitations prophetic in nature that would incorporate Joseph in a very intimate way with the final, definitive chapter of salvation history with God saving all humanity from sin and death with Jesus – is a pretty spectacular “coincidence” don’t you think? It’s doubtful St. Joseph would’ve made all those connections at that moment. Those are the “easter eggs” in the story left for the generations that followed to marvel at. Forgive me, I know it might be the theological nerd in me that gets excited by these things, but the point is, trust God – trust His plan that has been at work outside of our human time and human expectations. Trust He has always and is always at work – but that He wants that to be done not “to” us – but with us. He wants to work with us.
This brings me to the final point or the final lesson that St. Joseph teaches us. That we have to be connected to the Lord in our everyday lives so that we can know how to see Him, hear Him, and encounter Him in those bigger moments when we are crying out for signs. Joseph had to have been a man of great faith, and trust, and prayer… He had to already have been a man in a relationship with God to have been able to appreciate and accept this “dream.” Had he not, it would’ve been easy to dismiss it as a crazy dream. (Can imagine him saying I knew I should’ve passed on eating that Camel last night) Because Joseph knew the Lord already, He was able to hear Him speaking to Joseph in this difficult hour. He was able to trust God’s plan was greater than his plans. He was able to get up and follow what it was God was inviting him into – and experience the truth of those promises.
As we enter this last week of Advent – it’s good to remember that Joseph’s lessons remain true for all of us. Pope Benedict XVI said “Advent…invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention He has for each one of us.” So, in other words, more than simply commemorating Jesus’ birth over 2,000 years ago, we’re being invited to see that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us. His presence continues to dwell with us in a lot of ways, most obvious – in these scriptures, in His Body and Blood which we are offered to take and eat – thereby making Him really present in our bodies and souls.
In these ways, Jesus becomes even more intimately close to you and me than he ever was to St. Joseph. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that He would be speaking to us, inviting us to continue His work of salvation in our day and age, helping to bring Him to birth here and now – and providing signs of those realities.
What signs are you looking for as answers to your prayers right now? What fears and doubts make it difficult to sleep? What are the things that seem impossible – the things that seem barren, lost, dead in you right now? The things that if God himself asked you, what do you want for Christmas” are not any material things that we maniacally focus on this time of year but the things that are deepest in our hearts right now that we tend to have grown indifferent to thinking they are unanswerable, impossible…
Joseph tells us to trust God. Be open and attentive to His plan and even more to be open and attentive to the ways He is speaking to us – speaking to our fears, our doubts, our worries; inviting us into deeper love and trust with Him, His plans, His dreams for us; so that we too can make Christmas truly a celebration of His birth – for each of us, and for the world once again.