Joseph depicted in a stained glass window in Nazareth.
Here’s my Boxing Day homily…
In this day after Christmas, some of us are feeling that after-holiday let down that comes from spending too much and eating too much, drinking too much and socializing too much. Especially those who didn’t even make it here today!
But here we are, challenged to listen to a difficult gospel passage about angels and death, right on the heels of the miracle of Christmas.
Like the real world, harsh reality comes pressing in much too soon on the holy family.
In today’s gospel passage we’re in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. The magi – the wise men – have gone. There is a pause in the story – like our own pause today, after the busy-ness of Christmas.
Then, into this quiet time, the holy family’s life is turned upside down. First, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt before Herod kills all the young children in the area.
Then, while they are in Egypt, an angel tells Joseph in a dream that Herod is dead and it is safe to return to Israel. And when the family arrives in the land of Israel, Joseph’s third dream sends them to live in the safety of the district of Galilee, in a village called Nazareth.
Each time Joseph listened and obeyed, just as he did the first time an angel visited to tell him Mary was to have a child of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s take a closer look at Joseph.
In the translation we use we read that Joseph was a ‘carpenter’. The Greek word is Tekton (Mat 13:15, John 6:3) – and it means builder, in the sense today of general contractor. It doesn’t differentiate between a builder with wood or stone. To this day the building material of choice in the Holy Land has been stone – from temples to simple one room houses.
So perhaps we could reconsider our image of Joseph as a simple carpenter. One might think of him as a stone mason, a skilled tradesperson, a builder.
So think of someone you know who is a builder or an engineer.. or a computer expert … perhaps yourself – someone practical and used to dealing with mechanical problems – how would they – or you – respond to the voice of God or an angel in their sleep?
I am guessing Joseph was not too happy – perhaps he argued with the angel, how inconvenient it was, perhaps they could go later, why couldn’t they go home? why me? not again!
Looking west towards Egypt in the Judean desert.
As he packed up the tools of his trade and the family possessions on their donkey and set out on foot under the hot sun, did he feel that he was being tested? Was he angry? discouraged? excited?
He was probably used to travelling. In a time when most people lived and died in the same village, a skilled builder would move from town to town to work.
So, back to Bethlehem and the beginning of our story.
Even the rumour of a new king would have enraged Herod, and he was ruthless – he executed his wife and three of his sons. But the sad truth is that the killing of all the babies around Bethlehem would have been too insignificant to merit a report among Herod’s atrocities.
No surprise that Joseph acted promptly on the angels command to flee to prosperous Egypt.
But in Egypt Joseph and his family would have been outsiders, devout Jews far away from the Temple. No surprise, then, that Joseph readily picked up his family at the angels command to return.
Now why the angel directed him to Nazareth is a story for another day, lets just say for today it was safer under the new ruler of Galilee, and Matthew tells us it was to fulfill the prophets.
So did the angel send Joseph from place to place so he could support his family in safety? to expose the young Jesus to different people and customs in preparation for his ministry? to fulfill the prophets? or to echo Moses’s journey from Egypt and back? I wonder if it was for all of these good reasons.
But what is important is that Joseph listened the voice of the angel – the voice of God – and obeyed.
What does it mean for us to listen and be obedient?
Scrooge encountering a spirit in Soulpepper's production of a Christmas Carol. (photo: Toronto Star)
Now, most of us will never hear an angel speak in our dreams. And if we hear a spirit we’d be likely to doubt our senses — like old Scrooge in a Christmas Carol, who suggests that Marley’s ghost may be
“an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
And discerning, differentiating the voice of God from false messages – and from indigestion – can be a life’s work.
But sometimes … sometimes we make a change in our life and it just seems right, and a weight is lifted off our shoulders. Sometimes we change jobs, give up a harmful practice, change the way we live – or where we live. And if the change is right, we can look back and see the hand of God, just as Matthew did.
How often do we have the choice to obey God, or not?
Think about that police officer – the one who identified the constable now charged with the assault of Adam Nobody during the G20 summit. In a police culture that closes ranks on those who snitch, his life may be changed forever by his action of conscience. But perhaps he listened to God and obeyed.
Or take the man who wrote in the Star last week “I hate my job but can’t afford to leave it. I know I’m becoming miserable at home – what little time I am there – and hate that I’m often short-tempered and tense with my wife and kids.”
This man doesn’t need the voice of an angel to tell him that his life is out of balance. Some hard listening for God’s message might help him decide what God is calling him to do to change this downward spiral. Perhaps he needs to listen to God and obey.
Again and again we reach crossroads in our lives where we are asked to stop, …listen to God and be obedient.
Such radical obedience to God can be frightening – we may be ‘out there’ doing something on faith that others just do not understand.
But Isaiah reminds us that we act within the “abundance of God’s steadfast love” . He reminds us that we don’t need a messenger or an angel, but that it is God’s presence – just his presence – that will save us.
And here, on the day after Christmas, we remember that Jesus is among us, incarnate in human form, Jesus a baby and then a child travelling with Joseph and Mary across the Holy Land, and through his resurrection present to us at every moment of our lives, if we just have the courage to open our hearts to his abundant love.
All that we are asked to do is trust God. That’s all.
And the first thing to do is listen – for the voices of angels, for the voice of God. In our lives, in our community, in our loved ones, in our heart.
Perhaps – just perhaps – there is an angel speaking to us.
And all we have to do is listen … and obey.