HOMILY – SOLEMNITY OF ST. JOSEPH
Ushering in the Realm of Faith and Loving Grace
(2 Sam 7:4-16; Ps 89; Rm 4:13-22; Mt 1:16-24/Lk 2:41-51))
Have you ever been embarrassed by taking something totally of out context?
The readings today, as well as the solemnity of St. Joseph, are best understood within the context of the Mosaic Law, the giving of the 10 Commandments or Dabar of God on Mt. Sinai, calling the Israelites into a way to live based on these commandments. They also invite us to not be afraid, put our faith in Jesus and be open to experiencing the power of his loving grace.
From our privileged position of millennia of years of hindsight, we can see now the Mosaic Law was only a starting point for these hard-hearted people, about all they could handle at that stage of their faith journey. Laws are concrete, simple and should be easy to follow. The danger, however, is the legalistic mindset they created, with God as a judge looking down on the people, ready to punish any transgression. It was a conditional covenant – keep the law and they would be blessed; break the law and they would be cursed. It is easy to see how the people would live within a certain fear of never measuring up, of not being good enough, a fear that persists in some people to this day.
The first reading from 2 Samuel marks a breakthrough regarding this mindset. The prophet Nathan is instructed by God to inform David he would have an offspring from his lineage through whom God would establish a kingdom, build a house for God and whose throne would endure forever. Not only that, there would be an intimate father-son relationship with this descendant of David, a reality far transcending any legal arrangement or contract.
St. Paul, in the second reading from his letter to the Romans, reminds us of the radical newness of that promise actually extending back to Abraham. It would be based on faith, rather than the law. It would involve the power of God’s loving grace and mercy at work in our lives, again far beyond any rule or legal prescription. And it would be not just for the Israelites, but for all humanity, for all the nations.
In the gospel, we see all these readings, teachings and promises being fulfilled through the humble instruments of Joseph and Mary. First, we are assured that this Jesus was of the line of Abraham and David, because “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.” “Christ” means “anointed one” or “Messiah” – so this Jesus from the start is identified as the one Nathan pointed out to David.
Next, we see the radical newness, the “beyond the law” nature of this divine plan of God’s, as Mary was with child “before they lived together” – a major scandal in that society at that time. What happens next can be seen as a second annunciation: an angel appears to Joseph, as Gabriel had appeared to Mary, to reassure him and inform him of the divine nature of this child and of Mary’s pregnancy. This appearance takes the form of almost every appearance or theophany in the scriptures – the first words are not to be afraid, for it is an awesome thing to be directly addressed from the spirit world!
We see in the words of the angel, as in Gabriel’s words to Mary, the first intimations of the Trinitarian nature of our God. Jesus, Son of God, was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. The angel instructs Joseph to name the child “Jesus.” The name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew name “Yeshua” meaning “to deliver, to rescue, to save.” This name was in common use by Jews during the Second Temple period and many Jewish religious figures bore that name.
This child, however, would surpass all others using that name, because “he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus would be the fulfillment of the prophecy of a new covenant based not on law, but on love; not on legalism, but on loving, not on judgment and punishment, but on mercy and forgiveness.
Not only that, in Jesus, the Father who always desired an intimate covenant heart-felt relationship with God’s people, now draws close to us in an unprecedented and unforeseen way – through the gift of his Son as a humble, powerless little baby who would grow up among us without fanfare, and give his life and death away as a totally gratuitous gift, to once and for all reveal to a wounded humanity the depth of the Father’s love for it.
From now on, love triumphs law, mercy triumphs punishment, and grace will infuse justice. Our response is to put our total faith in Jesus the Christ, grow ever closer to him in love, and seek to express that love through doing his will and works of loving service. As St. Augustine put it, “love and do what you will” because genuine love always wills the good of the other and seeks to do nothing that will offend the other.
St. Joseph also offers us an important lesson during this time of crisis around the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Bishop Robert Barron points out that every episode of Joseph’s life is a crisis. He discovers that the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He resolved to divorce her quietly, but then the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and explained the anomalous pregnancy. So, Joseph understood what was happening in the context of God’s providence and he took Mary as his wife.
Next, discovering that the child was in mortal danger, Joseph took mother and baby on a perilous journey to an unknown country. Anyone who has ever been forced to move to a new city knows the anxiety that Joseph must have felt. But Joseph went because God had commanded him.
Finally, we hear of Joseph desperately seeking his lost twelve-year-old son. Quietly taking the child home, Joseph once more put aside his human feelings and trusted in the purposes of God.
The little we know about Joseph is that he experienced heartbreak, fear unto death, and a parent’s deepest anxiety. But each time, he read what happened to him as a theo-drama, not an ego-drama. This shift in attitude is what made Joseph the patron of the universal Church. This attitude is one we can adopt in facing or present crisis, and try to discern the many ways God will draw good out of this evil, and the lessons God may be trying to teach us.
The Eucharist is an experience of that love, mercy and grace of God working in our lives even as we celebrate, forgiving us, healing us, and empowering us to live out our intimate relationship with Jesus by loving others as he has loved us.