4th Sunday of Advent–What Would Joseph Do?

 

Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid, so real, that you could swear that it really happened?  Have you ever had an angel speak to you in a dream? I haven’t but I have friends who swear they have and I have no reason to doubt their word.

 

Don’t you sometimes wish an angel WOULD speak to you.  It would definitely make it easier to make some decisions.  Should I change jobs? Should I invest all my money in gold?  Should I take that trip I’ve been thinking about? Wouldn’t it be nice if an angel would show up, kind of like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life?

 

The thing is, if it did happen, would we believe it?  Remember, George Baily didn’t believe Clarence. He thought either Clarence was crazy, or he was crazy.  Whether our angel shows up in a dream or as we’re about to jump off a bridge, we’re probably going to be skeptical.

 

So, here’s Joseph.  First his fiancé comes up pregnant with a crazy story about the Holy Spirit.  I’m sure Joseph said something to Mary like “I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.”  The relationship must have been on shaky ground. Joseph was a businessman. He had a reputation to protect.  What will people think when his young future wife’s tunic starts to bulge? Either they’ll think it’s his, which was a terrible scandal in those days, or they’ll think it’s not his, which would be even worse.  Oy, veh! What to do, what to do?

 

Then one night he has this dream.  An angel appears to Joseph and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary into his home.  Her story about the Holy Spirit is true. This child will save his people from their sins.

 

Fortunately for you and me, Joseph took the angel at his word.  He didn’t write off the dream as the result of eating pizza before he went to bed, like I might do.  No, his faith made him believe.

 

But, why do we hear this story the week before Christmas?  Why has the Church decided that Joseph’s actions are important.  The Sunday before Christmas is kind of “prime time” in the Liturgical Year.  Unless you come to mass every day, this is the last message you’re going to hear before we celebrate Jesus’ birth.

 

Face it, even if Joseph had said “forget it, I’m outa here”, Jesus still would have been born.  He still would have saved us from our sins. Heck, we don’t even know what happened to Joseph after the incident where Jesus stays behind at the temple.  We don’t know how he died and there’s not a single word spoken by him in the entire New Testament.

 

 

We don’t pray the “Hail Joseph” and there are very few songs written about him.  But he must be an important part of the story or we wouldn’t be reading this particular Gospel on this particular day.  Here’s what I think.

 

Joseph is just like you and me.  Guys, he’s the perfect role model for fathers.  He gave up everything for his wife and son. The angel said “take Mary into your home.”  He took her into his home. The angel said “give up your business and take Mary and Jesus to Egypt.”  He took them to Egypt.

 

The angel came to him again and said “Take them back” and he took them back.  All the while the poor guy was living in a home with two sinless people. Anything that ever went wrong was HIS fault.  Just imagine being the step-father of the Son of God. Imagine what God would do if Joseph let something happen to Jesus.  It’s bad enough if you let your own kid get lost, just think if Joseph let God’s son fall out of a tree and break his neck.  It wouldn’t be pretty.

 

That’s what makes Joseph a good father, but what about those of us who aren’t fathers, particularly you ladies.  How is Joseph a role model for you?

 

Joseph did everything that was asked of him and he did it not expecting any earthly reward.  There was no recognition in his lifetime. There were no “parent of the year” awards. Most of the things he did, he did in secrecy.  Even John the Baptist’s father’s words are part of our faith tradition. The Canticle of Zechariah is part of the Church’s daily prayers.  But there’s no “Canticle of Joseph”. All we know is that he said yes to the angel. Not once, but over and over and over again. And we know that from his actions because his words were never recorded.  

 

In our first reading today the prophet Isiaah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God and Ahaz refuses.  He’s the total opposite of Joseph. Isiaah tells Ahaz that God will provide a sign anyway. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name Him Emmanuel.”  Of course Ahaz didn’t see the sign. It didn’t come for 700 years.

 

So, as you and I go about our daily lives, we do what Joseph did.  We act in faith. We don’t expect an earthly reward. Most of us will pass through this life and move on to the next, never knowing the good that we’ve done unless we run into our own personal Clarence.  And that’s probably not going to happen.

 

The Church reminds us of our role by presenting the story of Joseph just ahead of the celebration of his step-son’s birth.  Did Joseph have to say “yes”. No he didn’t. Would Jesus have been born, lived and died, and been raised on the third day without Joseph?  Yes he would have.

 

But Joseph did say “Yes” and he stands after all these centuries as our role model.  Face it, you and I aren’t Jesus. And we aren’t Mary. We sin. We make mistakes. We fail to live up to our potential as Christians and as human beings…..just like Joseph.

 

Remember a few years ago the kids were wearing bracelets that said WWJD?  What would Jesus do. In real life, what Jesus would do might be too much for us.  We can’t walk on water. We can’t turn water into wine. We aren’t free from sin. Maybe a better question would be “What would Joseph do?”

 

It might be hard to follow in Joseph’s footsteps, but it IS doable for you and me.  So, in the few days that remain before the big celebration, maybe you can keep Joseph in mind.  When there’s a decision to be made, ask him what you should do. I have a feeling you’ll get a pretty good answer.

 

A Proactive Lent

In today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 58:1-9) , the prophet Isaiah describes a proper fast.  He points out that lying in sack cloth and ashes is not the way to go.  Instead, he calls us to be proactive.  “Release those bound unjustly!  Set free the oppressed, breaking every yoke!  Share your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless!  Clothe the naked!”  In other words, “don’t just sit there, do something!

Giving up your favorite food (or drink) or fasting from too much television are good things, especially if they make you a better version of yourself (thank you Matthew Kelly).  But what we’re really called to do is to be active, not passive.  Share your faith with others through your words, and your actions.  If you’ve decided to give up candy for Lent, then take the money you would have spent and give it to a worthy cause.

Spend the time you normally spend in front of the television and volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter.  If your circumstances don’t allow you to make such an active time commitment, then spend the time in prayer.  Pray for those less fortunate than you, or pray for someone you know who’s fallen away from the faith.  Better yet, invite that person to come to mass with you this weekend.  Imagine the potential good you can do if you invite a different person to mass each week of Lent.  That’s six potential disciples you could create!  What an exciting possibility!

The point Isaiah is making is that, while our faith is a private matter, it’s meant to be shared.  Jesus told the Apostles, “Go and make disciples of all lands, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  He calls us to do the same.

Have a blessed and proactive Lent!

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The prophet Isiah lived in the 8th Century B. C., or about 800 years before Christ. Nearly 3,000 years ago he’s writing about racism. He writes that “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants” will be brought to the holy mountain. He says, speaking for the Lord, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

 

Remember, the Jewish people didn’t play well with others. Foreigners were the enemy. But here’s Isiah telling the Jewish people that foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will enter the heavenly kingdom. This was pretty radical stuff and you can bet that a lot of people didn’t like it.

 

Then we have today’s Gospel, where a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to have pity on her and to heal her daughter. Jesus ignored her. Again, the Jews and the Gentiles hated each other. Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Send this foreigner away. She’s bothering us.”

 

What Jesus does next is surprising. He tells the woman that He’s been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Do you think maybe He’s trying to teach the disciples a lesson? Maybe He wants them to see for themselves how wrong they are. He even calls the woman a “dog”. But this woman is no dummy. She says that even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.

Finally, Jesus praises the woman for her faith and heals her daughter.

 

Then we have our second reading where Saint Paul is writing to the Romans who are gentiles. Keep in mind that on most Sundays, our readings aren’t in chronological order. The first reading is usually from the Old Testament. The second reading is taken from the New Testament, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then we have the Gospel which usually falls between the other two readings in time.

 

Because the Gospel is Jesus’ words, it deserves the place of prominence as the last of the three readings. It’s like when you go to a concert, the headline act comes on last. The opening acts get the audience ready for what’s to come. It’s not a great analogy, but I hope you get the idea.

 

Anyway, Paul’s job is to convert them to the gentile Romans to the new Christian faith. He tells them, “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them…..For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” Like Isaiah, Paul is making a pretty radical statement. Again, the Jews and the gentiles hated each other. But here’s this new religion claiming that they’re all equal in God’s eyes.

 

See, racism isn’t new. Over the centuries, Jews have hated gentiles, then Muslims. There’s centuries-old animosity between the English and the Irish. And of course, today there’s the issue of black and white Americans.

 

The people who started this church were the victims of discrimination. When they came up the Mississippi River they weren’t allowed to settle in Saint Louis. Like the other immigrants, they were forced to locate outside the city limits. When word got out that the Bohemians were going to build this beautiful church, there were a lot of people who thought they couldn’t do it. Face it, a lot of people hoped they would fail. Who did these Bohunks think they were, anyway?

 

When my Irish ancestors arrived in America they were faced with help wanted signs that said, “No Irishmen need apply.” Newspaper editorial cartoons depicting Irish as monkeys were common. There’s even a term for anti-Irish, Hibernophobia. Here in Saint Louis, in 1854, the year our church was founded, there were anti-Irish riots.

 

You may not be aware of it, but there are people who hate us because we’re Catholic. Because Saint Louis is a fairly Catholic town, after all it was named after a Catholic saint, we don’t see as much of it as you might in other places, but believe me it’s there. I was shocked by some of the literature that was handed out here during Pope John Paul’s visit. It was pretty bad. Even our local media have an anti-Catholic bias that’s hard to overlook. You may not realize it, but every one of us has suffered some form of discrimination because of our faith.

 

We all have prejudices, some of us more than others, but we all have them. It’s only human nature for us to want to be around people like ourselves. But, that’s no excuse for hating someone just because they look different than we do, because they worship differently than we do, or because they have different political opinions than we do. There’s just too much hate in the world.

 

Muslims and Jews hate each other. Blacks and whites hate each other. Democrats hate Republicans and vice versa, so much so that nothing ever gets done.

 

You’ve probably figured out by now that what I’m leading up to is the situation in Ferguson. I have no idea what happened in the confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer who shot him. Nobody knows except the people actually involved. We have to trust the investigators who are trying to figure it all out.

 

What we do know is that there’s a tremendous amount of racial tension in Saint Louis and all over America. Sadly, it seems to be getting worse. The thing is, the government isn’t going to solve the problem. Maybe it can’t be solved considering that Isaiah wrote about it 3,000 years ago. But God calls us to love one another. That doesn’t mean that we have to hang out with people who make us uncomfortable, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be so antagonistic to each other.

 

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most of the people who’ve been trying to diffuse the situation in North County are ministers; black ministers, white ministers, Catholics and protestants, including our own Archbishop Carlson. With the exception of a few misguided souls who think that they’re above the law and entitled to just take the things that they want, nobody wants to see people get hurt. Nobody wants to see violence in the streets. People in North County, and all over the country for that matter, just want to live their lives in peace.

 

Jesus used the Canaananite woman to show the disciples how wrong they were to dismiss her just because she was different from them. Isiah said that the kingdom of heaven was for all. Saint Paul risked his life to take the new faith to the gentiles, even though he was Jewish himself. God is love. He doesn’t want to see His creation destroy itself with hate.

 

So, what can we do? The biggest thing we can do is to pray. We should pray for those who are victims of discrimination, whether it’s racial, religious, or philosophical. Churches all over the area have been holding special prayer services during the last few days. And, guess what? It’s working. Things are calming down. The violence has subsided. But until every one of us, black, white, or whatever, starts looking at others as God’s creatures, there will always be an undercurrent of hate and distrust.

 

We should also pray that God opens our own hearts to those who are different from us. Of course we have to use common sense and be vigilant for our own safety, but we have to accept the fact that just because someone looks different from us, it doesn’t mean they’re a danger. We all want the same things; peace, safety, a loving family, food on the table and a roof over our heads. We all want to live in a world where violence is a thing of the past. Will it ever happen? I don’t know. But I can sure pray for it and work for it. So can you.

PRAY FOR PEACE! 

The Second Friday of Advent

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“If you would hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river, and your vindication like the waves of the sea;
Your descendants would be like the sand, and those born of your stock like its grains, Their name never cut off or blotted out from my presence.”

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The prophet Isaiah lived about 700 years before the birth of Christ but his words ring just as true today as they did back then.  Fast forward to the eighteenth century, to the new country called “the United States.”  In those days didn’t our forefathers (and foremothers) hearken to God’s commandments?  And, wasn’t prosperity like a river?

This land was blessed in every possible way.  We had vast expanses of forests and farm land.  We had everything we needed for a comfortable life. We had valuable natural resources that we didn’t even know what to do with.   We won our freedom against all odds from the most powerful kingdom on earth.  We were a God-fearing people and prosperity flowed like a river.  Our vindication was like the waves of the sea.

Somewhere along the line, sometime after the middle of the last century, we got lost.  A lot of people got the idea that the Ten Commandments are the “ten suggestions” and eventually it was decided that they couldn’t be displayed in the very buildings where the law of the land is enforced.  Suddenly “Thou shalt not kill” became religious speech, not allowed on public property.

Doesn’t it seem that the “river of prosperity” may be drying up?  We’re in the midst of an economic recession unlike anything we’ve experienced in the past.  Unemployment is at an official 10%, but it reality it’s much higher.  We’re  involved in two wars and live with the daily threat of terrorism in our own back yard.  A lot of the rest of the world hates us.  Our vindication isn’t exactly like the waves of the sea.

I don’t mean to paint a gloomy picture because I believe there’s a simple solution to our problems, something that our elected employees in Washington DC don’t seem to understand.  It’s right here in the 48th Chapter of Isaiah, written nearly three thousand years ago.  And it starts right here, with you and me and millions of other Christians.  Hearken to His commandments.

God doesn’t lie.  He promised us prosperity and vindication if we’d do that one thing.  One by one we can set the example.  We can pray that others do the same.  We can get our country back!