Fourth Sunday of Advent Cycle A
Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
I remember the day well. I was down in Monck’s Corner, about an hour northwest of Charleston, at an overnight business conference. Mid-morning I received a call from my wife, and since she had not been feeling well I stepped out of the room to take it. She had for several years been having abdominal pains which she would learn later were from a non-cancerous tumor on her colon, and she believed that it was once again acting up. We had discussed it the prior night over the telephone. Her doctor had ordered a CAT scan of her abdomen, and since my mother-in-law was staying with us she could take her. Because this would expose her to radiation in the pelvic region, I suggested that my wife take a pregnancy test before the scan, just to make sure. She reminded me that her OB/GYN had given her only a three percent chance of becoming pregnant, due to the fact that we both had married later in life than most newlyweds. I told her better safe than sorry. Well, three percent chance or not, she told me that morning, standing outside the conference room on the phone, that she was expecting. Which also explained why she had not been feeling too well.
I tell this story because for me it brings back vivid memories, as I’m sure it does to everyone who becomes a parent for the first time, and probably not just the first time. It is a complex set of emotions, probably best summed up in the phrase, “Oh boy.” There is the gladness that you will have children and a family, the fear that something might go wrong, the concern that this will cost a lot of money, the relief that your parents will now be happy they have grandkids, the anxiety of how this will change your life and its routine, and about a hundred other thoughts and emotions all mixed up together. In our case, the results have been a true blessing from God, but of course fear of the unknown is always present on this side of the grave.
In today’s Gospel, we have Saint Joseph in this same situation. Matthew does not quote the saint, but when he found out Mary was with child, he must have done the Aramaic equivalent of “Oh boy.” The Gospel tells us that they were married, since the agreement and dowry between their two families had been completed, but as was the custom, they didn’t live together right away, waiting for the new husband to prepare his home and affairs for her to move from her family to his. So when Joseph found out, he knew it was not his biological child. Here we learn some things about Joseph. Matthew tells us he was righteous, a word that meant at that time a Jew who is strict about his observance of the Mosaic law, and the law was clear about what should be done with a woman who had a child outside of marriage – disgrace, dishonor, possible abandonment. But we find out that this saint, in addition to being righteous, is also compassionate, and would not have this happen to Mary, so he initially decides to handle it quietly.
Then Matthew tells us that an angel tells him in a dream about what is really happening. Now the saint wakes up and goes through the “Oh boy” mix of emotions yet again. The baby is not his; the baby is God’s, or more correctly the baby is God. None of the evangelists record what Joseph said, so we have no eloquent words similar to what Mary said after finding out about the incarnation, her beautiful Magnificat. But the result was the same: a “yes” to God. And Saint Joseph lived up to his “yes,” and provided for his family, protected his family from harm such as during the flight to Egypt, nurtured his family such as teaching Jesus his carpentry trade, and the other things husbands and dads do. In other words, he did what all fathers are called by God to do: he led his family. All Christian mothers are called to do this as well, but that is a topic for another day.
In the new year, the men’s ministry group here at Saint James will be conducting a day-long men's retreat about leadership of the family. It is geared towards men, their spirituality, and their role in leading the people around them, primarily their family, in support of their Christian duty as baptized Catholics. Most men understand their role in leading their family in many ways, such as financially or during emergency situations, but when it comes to spiritual leadership, they often hand that over to their wife. Children notice this, and in the absence of leadership from the father, they can misunderstand that these issues lack true importance. This retreat, designed by the national group Fathers of St. Joseph, gives some ominous statistics regarding this and other impacts on the family. Here is one example: “Children from two-parent homes who have a strained relationship with their fathers are 68 percent more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol” [LEAD: The Four Marks of Fatherly Greatness, The Fathers of St. Joseph, 2018, p. 10]. Truly, men more than ever need to ask themselves how they can be more like Saint Joseph. They need to lead their families in both word and in example. They need to say yes to God in fulfilling their vocation: to supporting and nurturing their wives in their Christian duties and to raising Christian children. If that challenge elicits an “oh boy” from you because it seems daunting, then please come and let’s share together as men this well-done retreat and how we can become better at our vocation as married men.
As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let our “Amen” when we receive the body of our Lord be a renewal of our commitment to doing God’s will, like the “yes” of both Saints Joseph and Mary. Let us ask for the intercession of Saint Joseph to help all of us, especially the men in our lives, to respond to the challenge of spiritual leadership. May our Advent journey prepare all of us for Christ’s coming, and in the words of the second reading, may we all receive “the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith” [Romans 1:5 NABRE].