It is perhaps one of the most common traits of being human, that we want to shape circumstances to work out in our favour. Sometimes even when it comes to accepting God’s will in our own lives, we have an urge to place limitations or conditions on it – attempting to bend God’s will to ours. We have real difficulty with the word ‘obedience’ as if it means being ‘oppressed’, or being ‘put down’.
But this impression of the word ‘obedience’ is a fairly modern one; it is not the Christian view. Another word should come to mind when we hear ‘obedience’
That other word is trust. Trust that the God who has spoken to each of us in our lives wants only the best for us – union with Himself for all eternity – and that obedience to His will is how we open ourselves to this wondrous gift.
As we come towards the end of the season of Advent, we are reminded constantly in the media to get that one last gift – advertisers are in the last days of whipping us into a frenzy of buying and selling as the last remaining days before Christmas slip away. Consider how many purchase things on the internet – a practice which is extremely common in our society. Whether it is through some of the better know internet ‘marketplaces’ like E-Bay or Amazon.com, we are faced with purchasing goods from total strangers. We don’t know the people we are ordering items from. We trust complete strangers in unknown locations with our credit card numbers, personal and financial information; and how do we know we can trust them? Well, we look at their approval rating on the same web site – an approval rating that again is provided by complete strangers – how do we know we can depend on their ratings of trustworthiness? And yet we have no problem giving these people access to our credit and personal information.
How is it that we find it so difficult to trust God….a God who has repeatedly intervened in human history to bring us back to Himself….a God who speaks to each of us directly, every day – if only we are willing to hear, and to listen to what He has to say to us.
Unlike the people involved in today’s Gospel, we have the benefit of hindsight, being given an insight into Christ’s birth well after the fact – remember the Gospels were written after Jesus resurrection. In his particular account, St. Matthew is writing for a mainly Jewish audience; he stresses that even from before His birth, Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament – even quoting from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in our
first reading ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel ‘- ‘God is with us’ To St. Matthew, understanding and accepting Jesus as the Messiah is what we might call today a ‘no-brainer’.
But look at the circumstances surrounding our Mother Mary and St. Joseph leading up to Jesus’ birth. St. Joseph is faced with making a decision on a matter that is beyond his understanding, and his practical experience. His betrothed is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father of this child – the Blessed Virgin has given him, what we would all likely consider an implausible story.
We are told that St. Joseph was a righteous man – he was a good man, trying to do what he thought was ‘the right thing’ to secretly divorce Mary, rather than expose her to public scandal…in fact, given the law handed down from Moses in these circumstances, to publicly repudiate her as being ‘unclean’ and ‘unfaithful’, risked a penalty of having Mary stoned to death, killing her and the baby in her womb, effectively ‘wiping out’ what people would have mistakenly thought at the time was a visible sign of sin in their community.
There would have been a cost to Joseph as well to take Mary as his wife at this stage– if they remained in the same community, then surely people would realize that Mary would been pregnant when Joseph took her into his home. The implications for Joseph in a first century Jewish town would have been serious – he would have been seen as weak in standing up in defence of the law, in other words, no longer ‘righteous’; his ethics would come into question, and we cannot underestimate how greatly this would have affected a carpenter- a tradesman- in this setting; his livelihood depended on the good will of those in his community, and religious law and social interaction were completely intertwined.
Look at the magnitude of what hinges on Joseph’s decision. Although God knows how history will play out, no one else does; salvation of the entire human race could hang in the balance – if Joseph goes with common sense and follows his own will, Mary will be sent away, and will have to raise the child alone in obscurity – that is, of course, unless the rest of the community finds out and Mary is publicly accused and attacked. We can imagine for just a moment all the angels in heaven watching, waiting- perhaps holding their breath, waiting to see what the response of St. Joseph will be. This is high drama of cosmic proportions.
We are told Joseph was visited in a dream by the angel of the Lord who explained that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, a child who was to save his people from their sins. He is told to take Mary into his home; and what is his response?
Not to discount his dream as only a dream; but to obey God’s directions to him, to take Mary into his home as his wife; from that moment , Joseph’s life is irrevocably changed – he will have to leave his home, eventually his country, to protect and raise Jesus as His own child…and yet he doesn’t respond with ‘okay God, I will do this for you, if you do this or that for me’ – he doesn’t try to work out a deal with the angel; while we are not left with his words, we are left with his actions – actions which gave a straightforward ‘Yes’ – obedience to God’s will and setting aside even his personal preferences – Joseph won’t even get to name this child ; this child’s name has already been chosen by God – Jesus.
When we encounter difficulties, or when we have any decision to make in our lives, we should always pray; ask God what he is calling us to do, and take the time to listen to His direction. We can enlist the help of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, asking them to pray for us and with us in trying to determine just what it is in our lives that God is asking of us, and ask God to grant us the grace to follow that course in obedience.
At my ordination, when I knelt before my bishop and held my hands out together, the bishop placed his hands around mine and asked ‘do you promise obedience and respect to me and my successors’? There was no ‘qualification’ in this question – it was a question which required a simple yes or no answer.
I can only speak for myself, but I expect the same is true for all the ordained:
I answered yes, because I trust my bishop to never direct or ask me to do anything contrary to what Christ commanded, to what Christ taught, or what God wills.
I could not answer yes if I had not been convinced of this in my heart…
It is the same when we consider what God asks of us especially during this time of Advent, as the celebration of Christmas draws so close.
Just like St. Joseph, we are each invited to welcome Christ into our own hearts and homes on His terms, not ours.
God doesn’t give us a list of possible qualifiers: this is not something we can attach conditions to; The direction is quite simple and straightforward – “accept me and welcome me into your life, and your life will be forever changed “—and in obedience; in trust, we have the opportunity to respond “yes Lord, come into our lives, remain in our hearts. We believe you want only the best for us, and in trust we surrender our desires, and freely choose to follow your will.’
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!