Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A.
Recently, I visited a family who had just moved. They asked me to come over and bless their new home. As is often the case after a move, many of their possessions were still in boxes, waiting to be unpacked. Many of the things that were unpacked hadn’t found their final home. Things were a bit of a mess, but it was quite understandable. Not only had they moved within the past month, but within the past five months they had welcomed a new baby into their family. The move wasn’t made any easier by the fact that half the family got sick, requiring a visit to urgent care. After moving in, the realities of home ownership set it, as things began to break and go wrong. The blower on the furnace stopped working, the storm window in the basement started leaking, new appliances weren’t functioning as expected. The family felt the least prepared as they ever had to celebrate Christmas. The nativity scene was still in storage, the tree wasn’t up, and things weren’t decorated. And yet, despite all this, the family was happy. Even if they weren’t prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they knew that Jesus was with them; He was with them in their mess, and that was enough.
When Joseph discovered that Mary was with child, he was in the middle of a year-long process of preparing a home for his wife. This was the Jewish custom at the time: First you get married, then you spend a year or so preparing a home, and then finally you move in together. As a carpenter, Joseph was probably building the home himself. We can imagine him in the middle of laying a stone for one of the walls or cutting a piece of wood for the roof, when Mary comes to him with this unexpected news. She is with child through the Holy Spirit; he is not the child’s biological father. He could become the child’s legal father by remaining in his marriage to Mary, but the situation is entirely unprecedented. A virgin has conceived, as the prophet Isaiah foretold. Could this really be true? Joseph has no reason to suspect that Mary isn’t telling the truth. He knows that she is a woman of remarkable holiness. Not once, in all the time he has known her, has he seen her commit any actual sin. Nor has he seen in her any inclination to sin. She is entirely holy—spotless, immaculate, without any stain or blemish—a perfect bride, wife, and future mother.
Although Joseph doesn’t think of himself as being as perfect as his wife, he does know the Jewish law. And not only does he know the law, but he follows it. He is a righteous man, one who keeps the commandments and remains faithful to the covenants. Despite his knowledge and fidelity—or, rather, because of them—Joseph is conflicted. The Jewish law does not foresee the situation that he and his wife find themselves in. The law says what should be done when a wife becomes pregnant with a child from another man, but the law says nothing about a virginal conception, a miraculous pregnancy through the Holy Spirit. If what Mary is saying isn’t true, then the law is clear: he should divorce her. The law actually demands more than this; it demands capital punishment. But since the Romans don’t permit the Jews to execute anyone, the standard practice is divorce. So that is what Joseph should do if what Mary is saying isn’t true. But if what she’s saying is true, then the law doesn’t exactly apply. But maybe he should divorce her anyway in that situation. After all, if she is truly pregnant through the Holy Spirit, is he really up to the task of being the husband and father of so awesome a wife and child? Such must have been Joseph’s state of mind when he made his decision: Either out of fidelity to the Jewish law, or out of a sense of unworthiness to continue in that relationship, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly, avoiding all unnecessary scandal that her unexpected situation might bring.
Like most of us do when faced with a difficult decision the next day, Joseph probably slept poorly. While tossing and turning he is visited by an angel in a dream. The angel not only confirms that what Mary is saying is true—that she really is with child through the Holy Spirit—but that he should not be afraid to be her husband and the father of her child. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” Amidst his sense of unworthiness, the angel reminds Joseph of his dignity: he is of the line of David, the great king. And although he won’t be the child’s biological father, God wants him to have the right and privilege that every father had at the time: of naming their child. In the child’s name, His identity and mission are revealed. His name, Jesus, means “The Lord saves.” This is not just a human child; it is the Lord. And His name is His mission: He is to “save his people from their sins.”
“When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife [and the child] into his home.” And his home was probably not complete at this point. The walls may not have been finished, or the roof entirely done. It may not have been perfectly safe and secure. It was an imperfect home, and incomplete home, a messy home. And, yet, the Lord wanted Joseph to bring Mary and Jesus into it. And that is what the Lord wants for us as well: He wants us to bring Mary and Jesus into our homes, even if they are messy—especially if they are messy. Because the Lord wants to be with us. He is Emmanual, which is not just a statement of fact, but of desire. God is always with us. He is present to all things by His almighty power and wisdom. But He wants more than that. He wants to dwell with us. He wants to be with us in our daily lives. He wants to work with us in our homes offices, relax with us in our living rooms, and eat with us in our dining rooms.
And to fulfill this desire of His, the Lord wants us to bring Mary into our homes, as did Joseph. In the fullness of time, God brought His Son into the world through Mary. And since God doesn’t change, it follows that He will continue to bring His Son into the world through Mary. In this final week before Christmas, I’d encourage all of us to find a way to bring Mary into our homes in a new way. It could be by placing a statue or image of her in a prominent place. It could be praying a decade of the rosary as a family or singing a song to Mary before bedtime. There is no better way of honoring the patron saint of our parish than this: to do what he did, to bring Mary into our homes. And if we welcome Mary, we will also welcome her child. Then, no matter if our home is new or old, neat or messy, Jesus will be with us, and that will be enough. Amen.