December 18, 2013

Overcoming Fear

The Advent readings display the intricate intertwining of hope and fear.  The prophecies of Isaiah, the appearance of John the Baptist, the mysterious angelic visitor to Mary, with a second appearance to Joseph, and the downtrodden condition of an occupied country conjure both.  As the beloved carol intones, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
            Year A of the Lectionary features the Gospel of Matthew, which gives Joseph a more prominent role than does the Gospel of Luke.  The church has always been more intrigued with Mary than Joseph, and artists often portray him as a disinterested bystander to the real action of the nativity. The sheep, ox, and donkey seem more engaged than he!

Jesus and St. Joseph by Virginia Wieringa
A righteous man, he has decided to spare Mary public disgrace over her pregnancy and planned simply “to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19b).  God vetoes this plan through the divine messenger who urges him (in a dream) to “not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20). The angel even tells him what to name the expected son—a role usually reserved for the father.
            Matthew sums up his response:
                        When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord
                        commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital
                        relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him
                        Jesus. (vv. 24-25)
Joseph overcame his fear and was obedient to holy instructions. 
            Fear is a powerful emotion, undercutting courage and hope.  It can hinder much of what God calls us to do.  It is no wonder that we hear “fear not” over and over in the cadences of Scripture.  It is the refrain of the angels; it is God’s desire for us.
            It is the promise of God’s faithful companioning that is the antidote to fear.  The angel assures Joseph of the role of the Holy Spirit in conceiving Jesus, and this allows him to take the role God purposes for him.  Helping get the near-term Mary to Bethlehem and later the young mother to Egypt are essential to the well being of the child.

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus by Guido Reni, c 1635

            From Thomas Troeger’s lovely text “The Hands that First Held Mary’s Child,” we read:
            When Joseph marveled at the size
            of that small breathing frame
            and gazed upon those bright new eyes
            and spoke the infant’s name,
            the angel’s words he once had dreamed
            poured down from heaven’s height,
            and like the host of stars that beamed
            blessed earth with welcome light.
And so on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we acknowledge the faithfulness of Joseph.

            Molly T. Marshall

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