Joseph: fear and courage
How many times in Scripture do we hear some variation of “Fear not”? Whenever I come across the story of someone being approached by God or an angel and being told not to be afraid, inside I find myself thinking: “Be afraid; be very afraid.”
For example, when God says to Ezekiel, “I am sending you to [the descendants of Israel], … And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid… though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid –” well, if I were Ezekiel, even though God told me three time not to be afraid, I’d be terrified. Briars and thorns and scorpions? Really? But I think, perhaps, there’s an underlying promise behind those scary words, the implied promise that God will be with Ezekiel through it all.
For me, the most terrifying angelic pronouncement in all of Scripture is when an angel appears in the fields outside Bethlehem and tells the shepherds “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” Don’t be afraid, the angel says, when it is actually the birth of this holy Child that will lead to the death of their infant sons a short time later, when Herod sends his troops to murder all the little boys of Bethlehem.
Terrible things happen in the Bible. Terrible things happen in our own lives. But in spite of it all, even in the face of fear and grief and rage, the angel still stands in front of us and says: “Fear not. God is with you; God loves you enough to enter humanity in all its chaos and danger, and to stay the course. You are not alone. You can do this. You can survive this, yes, even this.”
God abides with us. God gives us the courage to go on, step by step by step, however frightened we might actually be.
With that in mind, let’s look at today’s gospel. For the last Sunday in Advent, Years B and C in the lectionary cycle focus on Mary, but Year A gives us Joseph. Joseph, a man who has carried the stone of betrayal in his heart since finding out that his betrothed is carrying someone else’s child. The law at that time says that a woman pregnant from a man not her husband could be stoned to death, but Joseph, a faithful Jew and a compassionate man, chooses to disengage himself from Mary with a measure of discretion and decency. Then an angel comes to him in a dream and says, “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Right. Be not afraid. What a daunting request: to co-parent the Son of God. On one hand, Joseph would be justified in thinking that because an angel spoke those words, everything will be hunky dory, and that raising the Son of God might include some real perks, some comfort and safety, maybe even honor. But not so. We already know that the road ahead for Joseph and his pregnant wife and the holy Child she carries will be fraught with difficulty and danger. The only promise here, and it remains unspoken, is of God’s continual presence. That was enough to give Joseph courage on the road, in the stable, on the way to Egypt, through years of exile, the time 12 years later when he and Mary thought they had lost Jesus in Jerusalem…. Joseph may well have been terrified, but God gave him the courage to bear the blessed and holy burden of being father to Jesus.
Over the years, Joseph has become for me not only an icon of courageous fortitude, but the patron saint of all people who take on children not biologically their own: step-parents, foster-parents, adoptive-parents, and grandparents raising grandchildren. I think of a friend of mine who married a second time when she still had two young girls at home. The girls grew, and one left home early, drawn by the lure of drugs and freedom, but when she ended up pregnant and in labor, the hospital refused to let her keep the baby because of the drugs in her system. So my friend and her husband immediately took the child in. They adopted her, giving up their retirement to become parents to Julia. I think, too, of the foster parents among us here at St. Paul’s: I’m told that sometimes you have only a day, sometimes only hours to say yes to taking in a child, to becoming an instant family.
Joseph himself became an instant father. He had only the blink of an eye, the duration of a dream, to say yes to serving as father to Jesus. And he clearly did it well. It would have been his witness and role as father that gave Jesus such a tender image of fatherhood that he called God “Abba,” Papa. It would have been from Joseph that he learned that fathers give only good gifts to their children. And I wonder if the parable of the Prodigal Son carries memory of how Joseph embraced him when they had thought he was lost in Jerusalem. Jesus was indeed blessed by Joseph’s presence in his life.
The world in which Joseph and Mary raised Jesus was much like our own, filled with violence and uncertainty, despotic rulers, and religious figures who quote the law but fail to fulfill its injunction to love. It’s not a safe or easy place to be. But still, even now, against this current backdrop of darkness, stand a righteous man, a blessed woman, and a holy Child. The three of them look so small and utterly vulnerable, and yet their light shines in the darkness, and we are promised that darkness will not overcome it.
So fear not.
Or, if you do fear, face it with courage and take the next step.