Sunday, December 19, 2010

Joseph the Brave, Emmanuel the Christ

Faith is a dangerous thing, some might well contend.  Acting on conviction alone can get a person into trouble; when people do so they either prove themselves brave or foolish. 
So what if one acts on the conviction that the God of their salvation is present within he, or she?  On the conviction that with God’s help they themselves contribute to a plan of salvation that effects generations of people before and after them?  What if, one’s conviction about his or her vocation is based on a story that defies all logic, all scientific and philosophical reasoning?   
In the Nativity story, Joseph and Mary do brave and dangerous things -they act on faith.  Under no doubt stressful and frightening circumstances, and dealing with facts that are highly unlikely, the holy couple believe the unbelievable, and take up their vocation as mother and father of a new humanity.        
Upon learning that his fiancĂ©e is pregnant, Joseph responds as any noble man would– he plots to dismiss her.  Now that may sound funny to us, but in his day not so.  In ancient Judeo-Roman law, there were serious consequences on women (as well as men) who conceived children outside of wedlock.  If news got out that Mary was bearing the child of a local artisan or shopkeeper, for example, the penalty for her (and he) was no less than death. 
Now of course such was not the case, but it is hard to blame Joseph for presuming that it was.   It’s hard to blame Joseph for presuming that this was a normal situation, and that his pregnant Mary was no longer the Virgin Mary. 
Upon hearing that Mary was with child, Joseph was at first frightened, and naturally so.  But then, something happened.  A surge of courage came over the seasoned carpenter. 
Call it a second miracle, but Joseph came to believe that Mary had indeed been faithful, and that the child in her womb was in fact a child of God (It’s hard to say how much clarity Joseph had about the identity of Jesus; all we hear is that he did not abandon the child or his mother). 
The gospel reveals that an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, but that is not so remarkable.  God reaches out to all of us through various channels and in mysterious ways.  The miracle of the Nativity story is not that God communicated with people (that happens all the time), the miracle is that these two people listened.  On faith in an internally present Saviour God, Mary and Joseph responded with confidence to each other, and took up their call to bear and raise God’s Son.  
The term Emmanuel, as the gospel states, means “God is with us”; the name Jesus:  “God is our salvation”.  By listening to one another, and the deepest convictions of their hearts, Joseph and Mary learned these of two unequivocal facts.  Entering into unchartered territory, to bear and raise a child, Mary and Joseph grew to sense the profound presence of Christ within –in more ways than one.  And even though at first the child Jesus was undoubtedly an unwelcomed surprise, he became their sole joy and freedom, the pinnacle of Good News (In time he would himself prove to be the hope of salvation for all.) 
Might Joseph and Mary’s story resonate with us?   Not a one of us knows quite what this unmarried couple experienced.  Many (perhaps only few) of us have not even experienced the dilemmas of unplanned pregnancies (along with which comes financial, emotional, and physical stress).  Everyone one of us has, nevertheless, been graced with the occasional surprise.  And some surprises are more appreciated than others. 
What should not come as a surprise is that each and all believers are called, with Mary and Joseph, for God’s work here and now.  We are part a very large plan, and bringing God’s blueprint to life is our vocation. 
Each of us, in our own small way, do our part to announce, as Joseph and Mary do, that God is present yesterday, today, and forever.  As for our particular callings, we may be surprised by what God puts in front of us, but surely it will not be more than we can handle. 
For Mary and Joseph, the unexpected vocation, to bear and raise the Son of God, was most unique. None of us will ever re-enact (at least not literally) the Nativity story.   But to whatever surprises lie ahead, might we hope to receive them with courage and joy.  And even when overwhelmed, even if we cannot welcome everything that is thrust upon us, might we at least learn the one most important lesson that Joseph and Mary learned:  That no matter how dangerous our life of faith becomes, “God is with us” and “Christ is our salvation”.  Perhaps a little illogical, definitely unscientific, and somewhat ungrounded philosophically, these are unavoidable facts:
Jesus is Emmanuel and Saviour, yesterday, today, and forever! 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Second Coming? Second Sunday of Advent.

During Advent, there exists a hyper consciousness (and anxiousness) of upcoming events.  Christmas is coming, Santa is coming, relatives are coming, a Messiah and kingdom is coming.  For all of these reasons, Advent is, without question, a time of hope and anticipation. 
In today’s gospel, as in all advent readings, people of God anticipate both the feast of the Incarnation and the Second Coming of Christ.   Today, in particular, anticipation leads people of various cities and towns to seek a baptism of repentance and faith.   At what is practically the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist appears on the scene preaching a universal repentance.  He preaches that, in other words, it doesn’t matter how righteous one perceives oneself to be, or how disdainful others might actually be, each and every one of us (especially the baptised) is called to stop blaming, and to start begging forgiveness.   
Drawing us out of self-righteous cocoons, Advent is a time to reach out, to connect, and to reconcile.   This time of reconciliation, and an even more reconciliatory time ahead is foreseen by the prophet Isaiah.  Predicting the Second Coming, Isaiah speaks of enemies becoming friends, and rivals becoming companions.   Fearful only of God, competing creatures (who are now foes), says the prophet, shall live, lie, gaze and play together.  One glorious day in the future, according to Isaiah, God will dwell among us, and we will be transformed for righteousness and peace.     
So Christ will come again eventually, but a lesser day of peace and justice is sure to arrive much sooner –in just a couple weeks in fact.   In practical ways, most of us have already started preparing for that celebration.  Decorating trees, setting up wreathes, and buying gifts, we get ready to reconnect with family, friends, and perhaps even reach out to others whom we so often avoid. 
I don’t know too much about too many of you but…
Social studies indicate that Canadians, in general, tend to give exceptionally more than usual at Christmas time.  Whether money to the needy, food to the hungry, presents to friends or hospitality to family, Christians (and many non-believers alike) are on their best behaviour around this time of year.  Even though some of us may get accused of drinking too much on Christmas Eve, we can be exceptionally kind, generous, and welcoming when the day comes to celebrate the Christ’s birth and his return in glory. 
(…The cultural effect of Christmas alone, I would argue, is enough reason to uncork champagne.)       
This lead up to the feast of the Incarnation is a reminder of God’s generosity, but it is also a real testament to what can happen when a Messiah mixes with us.    When inflamed by our baptismal spirit, when activated by faith, we have the potential to transform the world into a new, kind, generous, and genuinely hospitable place. 
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul prays for the world’s and our, the Church’s, transformation by petitioning the One he calls “a steadfast and encouraging God”.  He writes, “Grant you (people of God) to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.   To a Divine Messiah, this is a pleasing request, but it can only be granted to willing disciples. 
Through the gifts of faith and baptism, God has but readied the world for action on conflict and division; it takes believers to implement the agenda. 
As baptised children of the same Lord, may we all repent and believe in what God has planned; May we reach out with joyful hope in anticipation of real reconciliation.   And may our Advent mission to reconcile fill us with an unquenchable fire for peace and harmony with all.