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 fiancée 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!