Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Holy Family

Image result for flight into egypt
Matthew’s Gospel opens with the triumphant proclamation of the new Davidic king in his genealogy, then immediately follows with the story of Joseph, who enlightened by the angel agrees to take Mary as his wife and to act as foster father to God’s son. Next the Magi come from the East following a star which comes to rest over the place where the child was. Matthew tells us that they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy and when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they fell down and worshiped him. Immediately following, however, the family learns that it must flee to Egypt to escape the furious rage of Herod; there follows the senseless slaughter of innocent children, and the wailing and loud lamentation of inconsolable parents. Jesus is immediately plunged into the sufferings and hopes of Israel, which are not lessened by his coming but even increase. But none of this is in vain, with the birth of Jesus, the sufferings and hopes not only of all of Israel but of all humanity but are taken up by God and drawn into his redemption plan to restore all things to himself.  

Joseph figures strongly in this passage. Its whole drama is framed and moves forward according to his decisions regarding the revelation of the divine will through the angel. He is told to flee to Egypt to avoid the plotting of Herod against the child. After the death of Herod he returns to Israel, and, finally, once again warned in a dream, he decides to settle in Galilee. In each instance we see Joseph carry out his task with a mature manly responsibility and simplicity. Implicit in the text is the sense that that despite the unsettledness, uncertainty and financial insecurity of their situation, Mary and the child receive good care under his guardianship.

In each of these encounters with the angel in today’s passage we see God acting with free and full disposal over the life of Joseph. But this is because he has previously received permission from Joseph in the first encounter with the angel; when he gave his assent to do as the angel commanded him and to take Mary his wife into his home. In other words, Joseph’s actions just happen out of the blue presuppose the events Matthew has already related.

Joseph was betrothed to Mary, he would have simply looked forward in joy and hope, like any other man, to a normal earthly marriage. In his betrothal he experienced real feminine love from Mary, with all the sense of fulfillment that only feminine love can give a man. And in the light of that love Joseph would have begun to make plans, imagining what his future life would be as husband and father to his wife and family, and have  begun to take steps to make it a reality when the time came for them to live together. He has chosen marriage in freedom and responsibility and within the expectations of a normal betrothal and marriage, he acts with a certain vision of how his future was to unfold.

Everything changes when he becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy. At a certain point the connection with him of Mary’s pregnancy becomes unavoidable and he finds that he has to act. It is at this point that the angel appears and gives an explanation. Joseph is now faced with a personal decision: will he say Yes or No to the angel? In deciding to say Yes he has to say no to the plans he has made up to this point, including the plan to divorce Mary. He must allow everything to be reoriented around this new situation. His ‘Yes’ and his obedience to God must from here on subordinate itself to Mary’s obedience and be entirely ordered to it.

One of the most beautiful consequences of the visitation of the angel to Joseph is not only that he is able to continue to share the life of the woman he loves but that, because the revelation comes from the angel, Joseph is able to share in this deepest mystery of Mary’s existence while at the same time respecting in silent reverence this profound secret she has with God and carries at the heart of her being. Mary can maintain her secret with God in her heart and yet at the same time be understood by her husband.

Mary’s position is one of utter solitude between the Old and the New Covenant. She’s neither in one nor the other. She has nowhere to turn. The representatives of the Old Covenant would not understand her and the New Covenant hasn’t arrived yet. The angel introduces Joseph into the mystery of the New Covenant, enabling them to live in mutual understanding while at the same time maintaining a protective veil over the mystery of Mary’s life with God.

All Christian married couples share in the grace of the mystery between Mary and Joseph. Along with the deep intimacy of their life of faith there remains a sphere of mystery of their life with God that cannot be shared and that each is to respect in the other with a respectful reverence. The existence of such a private realm is in no way an obstacle to their mutual love but actually makes it more fruitful, renews it and infuses it with new life.

God sends his angel to speak to both Joseph and Mary: at his appearance both are given a participation in the same mission. It is here in the unity of their mission that Joseph and Mary possess their true unity and true self-understanding in God. Whatever renunciations each of them has had to make for one another and for their service to God is more than overcome by the unity of their mission which in fact is the most profound union that can exist between persons.

The profound union and complementarity that Mary and Joseph experience comes to be through their service to this one mission. It is by carrying it out together, each in their own sphere of activity, day after day, that their union and complementarity attained its fullness. The origin of their single mission is wholly from above existed in the mind of God from all eternity, and was prepared for them from all eternity. Even their coming together in their betrothal and commitment to one another were already part of God’s providential care.

It’s from within the gift of this unity of mission that Mary and Joseph are able to take advantage of opportunities and confront the various trials, sufferings and difficulties they encounter in their life together raising the child Jesus, such as the need to flee to Egypt, to pick up once again and return to Israel after the death of Herod and settle in Nazareth.

Mary and Joseph in no way brought about or compelled God to grant them their life’s purpose through their own actions, but they did live in such a way that disposed them to receive it. As pious Jews, Mary and Joseph entered into their betrothal as people who want to serve God and belong to one another. Their desire to serve God would have been primary and formed the basis for their commitment to one another. Their betrothal and their whole lives were consecrated to this service of God. We can be sure that Mary and Joseph would have been open to whatever possibility of service God would have required of them in their marriage; and that their love of one another would never have displaced God as their first and primary love. It was this placing of themselves wholly at God’s disposal that left God free to act, to bestow on them their profound unity of purpose and to guide them toward such super-abundantly fruitful lives; not only for themselves but for countless others. 

Stained glass from the Pitcairn Collection. Excerpts from a homily by Father Timothy.